What images are conjured by the simple words “horror film”? What are the first thoughts that crawl to mind, automatic and unbidden?
Perhaps your mind wanders to a dark, shuttered house with creaking floorboards, where the spirits of prior residents refuse to rest in peace. Maybe you begin to picture the spindly, clawed fingers of an Edwardian vampire who has persisted through the centuries on a steady diet of human blood, or the half-decayed skull of a zombie, clawing its way up from a freshly disturbed grave. Maybe you picture none of the above, and your conception of “horror” instead focuses on the existential fears or mundanity of everyday modern life, or the sadists who just might be living next door.
For the last century (and well beyond), horror cinema has encompassed all of these things, and so much more besides. As a genre, horror offers an avenue for dissecting the paranoia, distrust and biases experienced by any given generation, sublimated into popcorn entertainment. Horror films make an appeal to their audience’s anxieties and their fears, but also their hidden desires, shameful though they may be. It’s a film genre that plays to our basest instincts, such as our desire to be thrilled or titillated, but the same films can also occasionally provoke deep intellectual analysis or debate. Ultimately, horror films reflect what you put into them. Some are simply blood and guts—others are much more.
With that thought in mind, allow us to introduce Paste’s Century of Terror project. Each day, for more than three months, we’ll be counting down the 100 greatest horror films of the past century. Beginning with 1920, a watershed year for the concept of cinematic horror, and continuing all the way to 2019’s pick on Halloween, we’ll choose a best film from every single year, whether it was a good era for horror, or one of the genre’s notorious fallow periods. Some entries will represent incredibly difficult choices between numerous classics of the genre. Others will force us to watch obscure new films for the first time, or niggle over what does or does not constitute “horror.” Overall, this will be an exercise in exploring the full breadth of the horror genre for the last 100 years, as we watch it survive and thrive in the face of everything society can throw at it. Truly, like a classic slasher villain, you can never keep horror down for long.
1920: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
It would be disingenuous to act as if 1920 gave birth to the first “horror film,” because it most assuredly did not. In fact, as early as 1895, Thomas Edison produced The Execution of Mary Stuart, an 18-second short film depicting Mary, Queen of Scots being beheaded with an axe, pioneering the filmmaking stop trick in the process. A year later, Georges Méliès, who would eventually give us A Trip to the Moon, filmed Le Manoir du diable, The House of the Devil, which many would consider the first proper “horror film.” It may have been only three minutes long, but like Frankenstein’s monster, horror had been given a spark of life.
In the decades that followed, a genre began to coalesce. Antiquarian horror films were produced in the U.S., France, Germany and Japan before the turn of the 20th century. Spanish director Segundo de Chomón chipped in La Casa Hechizada, one of the first recognizable examples of a true “haunted house movie,” in 1907. Iconic stories such as Faust and Frankenstein received their first adaptations, now forgotten to most outside of film historians. Along the way, filmmaking technique and prowess developed rapidly.
Then came 1920. Although it wouldn’t be right to call 1920 horror’s birthplace, it’s absolutely fair to label it as horror’s launching pad. Headlined by several silent horror classics, including the likes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s the year when horror as a genre left an indelible mark on the film industry for the first time. Although the genre would ebb and flow in the decades to come, horror proved quite impossible to stamp out—even when society (or Hollywood) made their best efforts to try.
As a result, there’s no more perfect starting point for this century-spanning project than 1920—the year when horror cinema announced it was here to stay.
1920 Honorable Mentions: The Golem, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Penalty, The Head of Janus (lost film)
The Film: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Director: Robert Wiene
It’s difficult to overstate how transformative The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was not only in German cinema, but in horror cinema worldwide. It remains the formative, foundational work of German Expressionism in film, but its fingers reach out across the century to touch horror films and psychological thrillers in every decade. Its visual motifs show up time and time again, from the shadowy, ghostlike countryside prowled by Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, to the tilted afterlife of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, to the cyberpunk, dystopian skyline of Dark City. It’s not the first horror film, but it’s the perfect starting point for a discussion of horror films.
The story revolves around the titular doctor, a hypnotist who takes advantage of a malleable sleepwalker in order to commit a series of vengeful killings. Every night, under the orders of the so-called “Caligari,” the sleepwalker Cesare arises and carries out his commands, having been stripped of free will and turned into an instrument of death. Given the pacifist ideologies of writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, one can interpret the message as cautionary: A too-late condemnation of the human tendency to blindly obey authority figures that led to the deaths of millions in the first world war.
As a film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari pioneers on multiple levels. On the narrative side, it presents an early use of both the twist ending and the unreliable narrator—our “hero” throughout the story turns out to be quite different in reality than the person he’s made himself out to be. It’s a structure that almost presages the ending of The Wizard of Oz, wherein the audience comes to understand that Dorothy has populated her fantasy with the faces of those people she sees around her every day.
Even more significant, though, are the visuals. The startling use of imaginative landscapes and visually disorienting sets employed in Caligari set the film apart from anything that had come before. The city of Holstenwall, where the story takes place, appears to have been constructed to the specifications of a madman. Staircases rise at impossible, dangerous angles, inviting walkers to slip to their doom. Buildings slant and teeter crazily, defying gravity. Shadows pool in multiple directions at once, seemingly obeying no dominant light source. And in truth, they really didn’t, thanks to stage designer Walter Reimann, who pioneered a technique for painting false shadows and beams of light directly onto the sets to trick the viewer’s eye. The result is often described as “dreamlike,” but if you had a dream about being in a city like Caligari’s Holstenwall, it would probably be because you were running a high fever. The effect is wondrous, but also creepy. In fact, to a modern eye, unaccustomed to the otherworldliness of silent film images, it’s arguably more creepy to watch now than ever.
As modern horror fans, it’s entirely too easy to convince ourselves that we don’t need to make time to sit down and watch foundational, silent films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We think that having seen clips of these movies in the course of perusing YouTube essays on the history of horror equates with having actually experienced these films for ourselves. This is incorrect. Simply taking in these works piecemeal does a disservice to how they play as theatrical experiences.
In practice, making time for films like Caligari is almost always a rewarding experience—one likely to reinforce the viewer’s appreciation for the entire genre, as they come to recognize the roots of so many other films they love. If there’s one thing I’d like to stress in the course of this 100-day project, it’s that all of these films deserve to be seen, because each laid some kind of vital framework for the next film in line. Caligari, perhaps most of all.
See you tomorrow, in 1921, and every day afterward until Halloween.
1921: The Phantom Carriage
The early 1920s, and really the entire decade by extension, until the talkie revolution, have a tendency to feature one or two significant horror films per year. In the beginning of the decade these are largely international films, the U.S. film industry having not quite caught up yet to the experimentation that was happening overseas. In 1921, that included early films from the likes of Fritz Lang (The Three Lights) and F.W. Murnau (The Haunted Castle), both of whom will appear prominently in later entries of this series.
These years are also plagued, however, by the existence of significant films that are now lost to time. Among them in 1921 is the Hungarian-produced Dracula’s Death, which preceded Nosferatu by a year in adapting—apparently very loosely—the characters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The film is theorized to be lost, although a print may apparently still exist in Hungarian archives. Regardless, it likely hasn’t been screened since 1923.
1921 was also home, oddly enough, to one of the earliest adaptations of Frankenstein in Italy, under the title Il mostro di Frankenstein. This adaptation was preceded only by the more famous Thomas Edison-produced, 12-minute version of Frankenstein from 1910.
1921 Honorable Mentions: The Haunted Castle, The Three Lights, Dracula’s Death (lost film)
The Film: The Phantom Carriage
Director: Victor Sjöström
In the canon of “man on his deathbed looks back on how his life ended up in such a ruinous state” films, few approach the iconic nature of The Phantom Carriage, one of the best known works in the history of Swedish cinema. It’s a masterpiece of composition and a breakthrough in early practical effects (especially double exposures to simulate ghostly transparency) within the horror genre, although the film functions just as much as a morality playlet and over-the-top melodrama. Regardless of classification, though, its imagery has echoed and been evoked through popular cinema around the world for almost a century.
The Phantom Carriage is the story of unrepentant drunk and consumptive David Holm, who stands proudly as one of the more determinedly unsympathetic “protagonists” in film history. Gathering all his drinking buddies around him in a graveyard on New Year’s Eve, he relates a folk tale of how the last soul to die in any given year is supposedly cursed to drive the carriage of the damned for the next 365 days. This is of course exactly what happens to David, who learns he’ll have to take over for his friend Georges, who managed to die the previous New Year’s Eve … but not before Georges takes David on an interdimensional journey through time and space, so David can see all the lives his obstinate drunkenness and misanthropy have destroyed along the way.
If that sounds a bit like A Christmas Carol, except with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come being promoted to Scrooge’s sole tour guide, then you’d be correct, except for the positively bleak tone throughout. The film trades in the absolute caddishness of the bitterly selfish, “modern man” symbolized by David, who mocks others for their attempts to make the world a better place and physically rejects acts of kindness meant to help him crawl out of the gutter. Watching a kindly Salvation Army worker sew new patches into David’s torn coat, only for him to rip them out rather than accept a bit of human kindness is a devastating sight, which can’t help but make the viewer consider the implications of “those who can’t be saved.”
Viewing The Phantom Carriage, film geeks in the audience will be struck by certain scenes or shots that seem like clear inspirations for depictions of death and the afterlife in the decades that followed. The carriage itself cresting a hill is notably evocative of a similar shot in director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, that of the danse macabre filmed from a distance. And when David clutches an axe, chopping down a door in a frenzy while his wife and children cower on the other side, comparison to Kubrick’s The Shining is unavoidable. The scene loses none of its power without being able to hear the dull thud of axe on wood.
Modern restorations of The Phantom Carriage, such as the one featured by the Criterion Collection, have made the film more accessible (and visually crisp) than ever, although it can also be seen in its entirety (in less than perfect quality) by simply browsing YouTube. This is one case, however, when a traditional viewing, preferably with a bit of mood lighting, will go a long way in delivering the intended atmosphere. Your friends probably won’t appreciate you throwing it on at a New Year’s Eve party, but you’re welcome to try.
1922: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens
The American horror market is showing some signs of life in 1922, with horror-adjacent films from D.W. Griffith and Wallace Worsley, but the three most prominent works are all still European. Fritz Lang again makes his presence felt with Dr. Mabuse, and Benjamin Christensen creates his best-known work, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.
Of the honorable mentions, the latter comes close to unseating even a title so monolithic in its esteem as Nosferatu. Truly, there’s nothing else quite like Häxan, a pseudo documentary purporting to show how “backward” Europeans once punished (and tortured) those accused of witchcraft. If you’ve ever wanted evidence that people were exactly as cynical and sarcastic 100 years ago as they are today, look no further than Häxan, a film that looks upon the abuses of the past with both condemnation and a certain gallows sense of humor about the whole ordeal. Alternatingly funny and genuinely creepy, Häxan remains mesmerizing to watch in 2019.
Nosferatu, though, looms above everything.
1922 Honorable Mentions: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Häxan, One Exciting Night, A Blind Bargain (Lost film)
The Film: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens
Director: F.W. Murnau
It’s incredible to think just how close the world came to losing Nosferatu forever. We know it as the first true adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that’s also exactly why it almost vanished from the face of the Earth after its initial release: Its producers never acquired the rights to the novel. Instead, they merely changed all the character names, which was the impetus for Max Schreck’s iconic Count Orlok. The result was a court order that sided with the Stoker estate, which ordered the immediate destruction of every copy of Nosferatu—orders that were promptly carried out in Germany. Thankfully, for the future of the vampire genre and horror cinema in general, several copies of Nosferatu had already been sent abroad, where they waited in the U.S. for seven years before Nosferatu finally had its premiere in 1929, in the twilight of the silent film era. Finally, horror fans in the U.S.A. found out what all the fuss was about—only two years before Universal would unveil its own Dracula. All existing versions of Nosferatu were created from those sole, surviving prints.
As a film, it’s a monumental achievement for the time period. Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it stands as the most iconic work of German Expressionism in film, although where that film is fantastical and illusionary, Nosferatu’s settings are more classically gothic and romantic. Murnau reserves some of the most expressionist touches for the depiction of the vampire himself, and especially his larger-than-life shadow, which stands in for the vampire in several iconic scenes.
And my, what a vampire. Max Schreck puts on a performance for the ages as Orlok, a rat-faced and spindle-fingered ghoul lacking any shred of humanity. Unlike the seductive, captivating presence that would become the archetype for portrayals of Dracula after Bela Lugosi in 1931, Orlok is a proper beast, and a genuinely frightening one. There’s something distinctly inhuman, something alien about the rigidity of his movements, his gaunt frame and wild-eyed expressions, that is still unnerving to watch today. It’s not at all surprising that director E. Elias Merhige and actor Willem Dafoe wanted to pay homage to Schreck’s otherworldly performance by portraying him as an actual secret vampire in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire. Schreck is just that good.
Ultimately, although Count Dracula remains more famous as a vampire character, Orlok and Nosferatu have never left us. His likeness continues to crop up in tribute form, time and time again. He was the vampire in TV’s ‘Salem’s Lot. He leaps from the screen in a classic episode of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?. He shares an apartment with Taika Waititi in What We Do in the Shadows. You can’t shake his image. You can only pray for daybreak.
1923: The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Although The Hunchback of Notre Dame exists on the periphery of horror, it represents a big moment for the genre in the American studio system, launching Lon Chaney to stardom as the first bonafide American “horror icon,” and presaging later smash hits such as The Phantom of the Opera. The rest of the year, like the rest of the early 1920s, is mostly notable for its European output—several Expressionist German films in the form of Warning Shadows and The Stone Rider in particular.
There’s also the case of While Paris Sleeps, another Lon Chaney feature that was produced in 1920 but released in 1923. Its plot reportedly plays out almost like an early version of House of Wax, although it’s impossible to say for sure, as the film is now considered lost. That leaves 1923 with a dearth of high-profile offerings, making The Hunchback of Notre Dame a pretty obvious pick. It’s still a few more years from this point until there’s a reliably robust crop of horror films every year. Just wait until we reach the 1930s, though.
1923 Honorable Mentions: Warning Shadows, The Stone Rider, While Paris Sleeps (lost film)
The Film: The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Director: Wallace Worsley
It’s certainly not hard to make a case for The Hunchback of Notre Dame as more “adventure” or “romantic drama” than it is a horror film, save for one key characteristic: The iconic, unavoidably grotesque appearance of its title character. Lon Chaney Sr. was referred to as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for a reason, a plaudit made only more legitimate by the fact that it was often Chaney himself to who was conceiving and applying his own makeup. A master of multiple crafts, you might call him the Doug Jones of his day—an actor renowned for his ability to emote, via subtle physicality and full-body performance, through layers of makeup and costuming that might suffocate other performers.
Here, in Universal’s massively successful (their biggest silent film ever) adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Chaney is a dynamo of pent-up energy. He attacks his stunt work with a ferocity that makes you fear for the performer’s safety, clambering and climbing, riding on Notre Dame’s bells while sporting a countenance as Quasimodo that is genuinely is difficult to look upon. Described as deaf and half blind, he seems covered from head to toe in misshapen lumps of flesh, and you can feel his agony in the bestial movements he applies as he scampers through the cathedral and rings its bells with reckless abandon. His hatred of the common folk who live below makes him at first seem loathsome, and then pitiable—as does the tear-jerking, morose ending.
At the same time, though, there’s also an odd undercurrent of misanthropic black humor running through The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Its assemblage of beggars—quickly revealed to be a den of con artists with faked illnesses and deformities—is shockingly modern in terms of its cynicism toward charity and “human decency,” feeling more like a statement of Gen X punk rock disgust than something you’d expect to see in a silent film in 1923. Combined with the sometimes awkward attempts at period dialog, you’ll be hard-pressed not to laugh when the captain of the guard orders his men to “tie up this varlet!” in reference to Quasimodo.
Ultimately, though, The Hunchback of Notre Dame resonates most strongly today for its timeless tale of haves vs. have nots, just as relevant now as it was when written in 1831. On the strength of a physical performance that has never really been equalled in any of the other Hunchback adaptations, it was a launching pad for both the fortunes of Lon Chaney and American horror films in general, although the American horror output would still prove sporadic until the boom of the 1930s.
1924: The Hands of Orlac
After the iconic silent films that kicked off the era of cinematic horror in the beginning of the decade, 1924 has slowed down considerably. There’s very little of note from the American film industry in this year, even when accounting for lost films, aside from the oddity that is the 1924 version of Dante’s Inferno, which attempted to update Dante Alighieri’s epic poem to a modern American setting. The only really notable films are from Austria and Germany, in the form of The Hands of Orlac and another House of Wax precursor, Waxworks. Of the two, Orlac gets the edge.
1924 Honorable Mentions: Waxworks, Dante’s Inferno
The Film: The Hands of Orlac
Director: Robert Wiene
The Hands of Orlac is arguably the next most prominent work in the filmography of director Robert Wiene, after the monolith that is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Unlike that film, this one is an example of German Expressionism more in its motifs and performances than in art direction or settings—no topsy-turvy dream city to navigate, this time. Rather, the setting is grounded in the cold reality of modern Austria, although the film’s protagonist is haunted by the threat of the fantastical.
Conrad Veidt, our somnambulistic killer from Caligari—and four years before he’d appear as the title character in The Man Who Laughs—plays a concert pianist named Paul Orlac, who loses his hands in a grisly accident. Desperate for a way to maintain his livelihood, he turns to modern medicine and is granted a new set of transplanted hands, but with a catch—they previously belonged to an executed murderer named Vasseur. Repulsed by the thought of living with a killer’s hands, Orlac begins to spiral into paranoia at the thought that his hands are alien to him, still containing some vestige of the killer’s evil ways. And when someone close to him turns up dead, slain by the killer’s own knife, Orlac can’t help but question whether he might somehow be responsible.
A classic of the “am I suffering from mental illness, or an elaborate hoax?” variety, ‘ala The Game, Orlac is one of the first classics of a subgenre we would come to refer to as “body horror.” As in other examples of body horror, fear is driven from the subconscious questioning of whether one’s own being can be trusted, or whether it has somehow been invaded, stolen or corrupted by an outside force. The same themes would go on to be mined in both a serious manner by the likes of David Cronenberg, in films like Shivers or Rabid, and in horror comedies like Evil Dead 2 or even 1999’s Idle Hands.
The Hands of Orlac has seen several remakes, including 1935’s Mad Love, starring Peter Lorre and Frankenstein’s Colin Clive as the titular character, and 1960’s The Hands of Orlac starring Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee. None can quite pull off the emotive simplicity of Veidt’s performance, however, and you’re likely better off sticking to the original, which is easy to find in the public domain.
1925: The Phantom of the Opera
The Hunchback of Notre Dame made Lon Chaney Sr. into a “horror” star in 1923, but it’s Phantom that really solidifies the perception, at least as far as our pop-cultural memory is concerned. In truth, Chaney was cranking out genre movies at a ridiculous pace in this particular era—every year seems to have a handful of Lon Chaney starring vehicles. In 1925, he also stars in future Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three, and in another low-budget horror flick called The Monster, practically cornering the entire genre to himself. Never again would horror be so dependent upon a single face, so it’s almost no wonder that Chaney was the “Man of a Thousand Faces”—he literally had to be.
As for the rest of 1925, there’s not a ton to recommend. The Lost World is an early achievement in stop-motion dinosaur effects, but is a bit of a stretch to label as horror. Maciste in Hell is an interesting adaptation of Dante’s Inferno-style hand-wringing, but good luck finding a decent copy of it. Phantom stands head and shoulders above everything else.
1925 Honorable Mentions: The Unholy Three, The Monster, The Lost World, Maciste in Hell
The Film: The Phantom of the Opera
Director: Rupert Julian
Where The Hunchback of Notre Dame cares more for the humanity and pathos of Chaney’s Quasimodo, The Phantom of the Opera is a more purely entertaining tale of melodramatic obsession and gothic grandeur. Here, as the hideously disfigured Erik, Chaney is much more regal, commanding and arch—a vaudeville stage villain with a twist of “mad scientist.” Where the pitiable hunchback crept and cowered, Erik imperiously believes that he’ll live to see the world pay for everything it’s done to him—and hold his dream woman in his thrall, at the same time. And all from the comfort of a subterranean sewer bordello, at that.
Actress Mary Philbin portrays would-be opera prima donna Christine Daaé with a combination of ambition and naivete that make her somewhat unsympathetic, seemingly a sly commentary on how the ugly nature of her desire for fame and influence makes her every bit the “monster” that The Phantom is under his mask. To wit, she’s perfectly happy to accept the assistance of her mysterious benefactor, even when that help extends into the realm of outright murder. Only after seeing under the mask of her new beau does Christine decide that there seems to be anything wrong with the direction her life is taking—and by then, of course, it’s far too late, and she’s become the Phantom’s prisoner.
Certainly, The Phantom of the Opera is the most well-remembered and treasured of the pre-Dracula Universal horror films, owing to a few key factors. The sets are particularly spectacular for the time period, from the majestic center stairway and foyer of the opera house, home to the striking, two-strip Technicolor “Bal Masqué” sequence, to the watery catacombs that hide the Phantom’s secret lair. And of course the film remains preserved in the memories of film historians thanks to Chaney’s iconic face itself, another testament to the actor’s skills in designing his own makeup. The sunken eyes, upturned nose and jagged teeth of the Phantom give him an emaciated, skull-like visage that should always be considered an integral part of the lineup of Universal Monsters, although The Phantom is now sometimes forgotten among that particular pantheon. To leave him out would be a mistake, especially given how Chaney’s face reportedly had patrons screaming and fainting in the aisles in 1925.
Indeed, the Phantom proves to be one of horror’s most devilish early icons, a mastermind who wraps the rest of the film’s characters around his finger with relative ease. The film’s hapless protagonists attempt to rescue Christine from the villain’s clutches while falling prey to an array of fiendish traps and mechanical devices, eventually succeeding only due to the Phantom’s last-minute act of mercy. The audience is left with no question of who the superior mind belongs to—the Phantom. This “horror puppetmaster” archetype would echo through the ages, from the mad doctors portrayed by Karloff and Lugosi in the 1930s, to Vincent Price’s Abominable Dr. Phibes, to Saw’s own Jigsaw Killer. All bear the grandiloquent mark of the Phantom.
1926: A Page of Madness
The back half of the 1920s is not exactly horror’s most prolific era, at least in terms of the volume of films being produced, but there are a few notable exceptions in each year. 1926 is one of the rare years that doesn’t see the release of any Lon Chaney horror flicks, but instead we’re gifted with two very distinct international classics: Germany’s Faust from Nosferatu creator F.W. Murnau, and Japan’s singularly strange A Page of Madness from innovator Teinosuke Kinugasa.
Of the two, Faust is better remembered by most horror audiences today, and not without reason. Murnau employs many of the same fantastical, expressionistic visual cues present in Nosferatu to tell a tale that has been adapted countless times in cinema, hewing fairly closely to the framework of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s legendary stage adaptation of Faust. The great Emil Jannings is cast in one of his best roles as the devil Mephisto, towering over Faust’s village in a way that would presage the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in 1940’s Fantasia. Equal parts buffoonish and genuinely unsettling, Jannings figures prominently in Paste’s list of the 25 greatest film Satans for a reason.
In the end, though, we have to lean toward A Page of Madness for its disconcerting uniqueness, which is utterly unlike anything else that can be found in the same time period.
1926 Honorable Mentions: Faust, The Man Who Cheated Life, The Bells, The Magician
The Film: A Page of Madness
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
For 45 years after its initial release in 1926, almost no one on Earth was even aware of the existence of A Page of Madness. The silent, avant garde horror film had come and gone largely unnoticed during its original release, the product of an artist collective called the “School of New Perceptions” who seemed to be rebelling against naturalism by making the most surrealist and nightmare-inducing series of images they could conceive. A challenging, bizarre film even in its home market, A Page of Madness must have left some perplexed viewers scratching their heads in 1920s Japan, but after its initial release it was physically locked away and forgotten, until it was rediscovered by director Kinugasa himself in 1971—legend has it that the director literally unearthed it in his garden shed, having forgotten he ever stored it there. What followed was a long-overdue rediscovery by the film world, which reacted in awe at the sheer, disconcerting imagination that Kinugasa and his collaborators captured back in 1926.
The story of A Page of Madness, such that exists, revolves around a middle-aged janitor at an insane asylum, who wanders the halls with his mop and observes the patients in their various states of frenzied activity. The audience slowly comes to realize that the janitor’s intent at the asylum is to secretly care for his wife, a patient who went mad due to her husband’s cruel treatment of her. Wracked by guilt, and also trying to provide for a daughter who is seeking a socially respectable husband, the janitor must hide the existence of his wife from the world, lest his daughter’s honor be tainted by the association.
This, at least, is the film’s story on paper. In reality, almost all of A Page of Madness must be inferred by the audience. Lacking intertitles and traditional dialog, the film would have been accompanied in its initial runs by an in-house narrator to provide crucial context. Functioning as a truly silent film, the audience is simply left to pick meaning from the disorienting, searing imagery of insanity.
And truly, this film really is disturbing viewing, even to a modern audience. Beautifully shot but spastically edited, it intercuts a constant stream of impressionistic imagery over sequences depicting various mental patients, queuing up startling visual metaphors for the mental degradation of both the criminally insane and our ailing protagonist, while maintaining a degree of empathy for both. Its purpose isn’t to gawk at a freak show of crazies behind bars, but to note just how thin the line is between people on one side of the divide and the other.
Regardless, A Page of Madness belongs now to the small class of silent horror films from the 1920s that remain genuinely unnerving to watch today. If you put this film on during the background of a Halloween party, someone will ask you, sooner rather than later, to turn it off. And they’ll probably say something like “This thing is freaking me out, man.”
1927: The Cat and the Canary
After taking a year off from horror, Lon Chaney is back in action in two of 1927’s most notable horror films, in the form of The Unknown and the mysterious London After Midnight. Both films happened to have been directed by Dracula’s Tod Browning, but only The Unknown can actually be seen in 2019. Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Phantom of the Opera, this story also sees Chaney playing a disfigured man in love with a woman he can’t possess—only this time, the disfigurement is actually an elaborate con.
London After Midnight, meanwhile, is perhaps the most famous “lost” horror film of all time, and certainly is among the most sought-after of all lost works of the silent era. A detective thriller at heart, its horror reputation comes from Chaney’s particularly ghoulish makeup job, which saw him playing a vampire-like character with sharp, filed teeth and a dapper beaver hat. Reception to the film was mixed at the time of its release, but the destruction of the last known copy of London After Midnight in the 1965 MGM vault fire, coupled with the surviving production photos of Chaney’s makeup, have since catapulted it to mythic status. The closest that any of us will likely ever get to seeing it is the 2002 reconstruction from Turner Classic Movies, which combined the original script with various production stills and artwork to illustrate a rough outline of the film. But who knows—maybe someday, a full copy will be discovered.
1927 also gives us an early Hitchcock silent entry in the form of The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, and the particularly influential “old dark house” yarn The Cat and the Canary, making this arguably the strongest overall year for horror cinema in the back half of the 1920s.
1927 Honorable Mentions: The Unknown, London After Midnight (lost film), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, The Last Performance, The Gorilla
The Film: The Cat and the Canary
Director: Paul Leni
Few horror films have been remade so many times, at least in a loose sense, as The Cat and the Canary. It wasn’t the absolute first film to bear the hallmarks we would stylistically come to refer to as the “old dark house movie” (The Monster did it in 1925), but its success made it the first to turn most of the subgenre’s tropes into institutions that have been repeated in other Old Dark House films for nearly 100 years. In fact, the tropes of The Cat and the Canary still seem so familiar today that the experience of watching it for the first time in 2019 feels oddly comforting, as if you’ve seen the film before.
The Cat and the Canary doesn’t quite have the artistic pretensions present in A Page of Madness, or even The Phantom of the Opera, but it can earnestly claim to be a fun, entertaining mystery that holds up surprisingly well to modern viewing. In truth, it’s actually something of a stylistic mashup—a straightforward mystery plot born out of a stage play, revolving around an extended cast of suspicious characters brought together to spend the night in a spooky old mansion, accented by the German Expressionist visual stylings of director Paul Leni. These inspirations aren’t present in the performances so much as they are in the establishing shots, cinematography and even the quirky, moving intertitles, which have much more personality than most films of the time. The exterior illustrations of the house itself, meanwhile, look like something out of Nosferatu, bleeding around the edges into the night, as if its evil can’t be contained. How perfectly spooky, right?
Plenty of other Old Dark House bonafides get their start here. There are secret passageways. A missing will, which names one of the people in the house as a beneficiary. An “escaped lunatic” named The Cat on the loose, who may or may not be prowling the mansion. Disguises. Deaths that turn out not to be deaths. It’s all there. On the other hand, though, there are a few wrinkles that make The Cat and the Canary unlike some of the other films that would follow in its footsteps—such as the fact that the dweeby comic relief character, who is introduced with the phrase “Why Paul, I haven’t seen you since nurse dropped you on your head!”—somehow turns out to be the hero.
Today, The Cat and the Canary makes for charming, spooky, “low-stakes” viewing—the preponderance of spider webs covering every surface of the mansion make it feel like the visual inspiration for every Halloween haunted house you ever visited as a child. Being a silent film, you can’t hear every hinge creaking when characters creep about in the darkness, and yet somehow you know that they are. It’s Scooby Doo, more than 40 years earlier.
And finally: The film has a literal “G-G-G-Ghosts?!?” intertitle card in it. What more could you want?
1928: The Man Who Laughs
It would seem that adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe were having a moment in 1928, as the year yielded not one but two different versions of The Fall of the House of Usher, not to mention a notable Expressionist take on The Telltale Heart. Of those two Usher films, MGM’s U.S. version is a short of only 13 minutes in length, although its Expressionist stylings also make for interesting viewing. More well known is the feature-length Usher from French Impressionist and filmmaking pioneer Jean Epstein, although its languid pacing might make it seem interminable to modern audiences—certainly in comparison to the more florid Usher adaptations that would come along in later years, such as Roger Corman’s famous version starring Vincent Price in 1960.
Regardless, 1928 proves to be the last year with a flourishing of horror titles until the advent of film’s sound era.
1928 Honorable Mentions: The Fall of the House of Usher, A Daughter of Destiny, The Terror, The Telltale Heart
The Film: The Man Who Laughs
Director: Paul Leni
The Man Who Laughs isn’t truly meant to play as a horror film. Although it’s undeniably an Expressionist work from director Paul Leni, adjacent to the same genre that produced Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—and indeed, starring Caligari’s own Conrad Veidt—it has more story elements of romantic melodrama and even swashbuckling adventure than it does horror. Except, that is, for its searing, deeply evocative imagery, the product of photography that is so successful it goes above and beyond what it was trying to achieve, creating a horror classic almost by accident.
The film is the story of a man named Gwynplaine, adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. As a boy, the young Gwynplaine is orphaned when his dissident father is executed by the English king. Stolen away by a group of child-thieving rogue doctors, his face is grotesquely disfigured into a permanent grin. Escaping his captors, he seeks asylum with a traveling performer, bringing along the baby girl he discovered along the way. Growing to adulthood, he becomes a renowned sideshow act, “the man who laughs,” with his blind “sister” by his side—all the while longing for her love, but consumed by feelings of inadequacy.
That love story may be the focus of the plot, but what the viewer is most likely to take away from the film are singular, disturbing images. A scarred boy, hiding his face, abandoned in the snow. Bodies swinging from the gallows as that little boy runs among them, almost seeming to frolic. A woman frozen to death in a snowbank, still clutching her living baby. An adult Gwynplaine, dressed as an English lord, smiling hideously as his eyes fill with tears before the House of Lords. The dastardly court jester Barkilphedro, whose own grin is equally disturbing and considerably more devious than Gwynplaine’s. Few silent films of the era have such nightmare-inducing still shots.
Those genuinely horrific moments make for an unusual tandem with some of the film’s other unique elements, particularly the character of Duchess Josiana, played by Russian femme fatale Olga Baklanova. Her depiction is extremely Pre-Code, displaying a luridly open attitude toward sex, nudity and flirtatiousness that is shocking to see in a silent film from 1928, running counter to how modern viewers stereotype the era. The Duchess is so voracious, in fact, that in one scene she’s groped and pawed at by the unwashed masses of a county fair … and the character actually enjoys it and encourages them to keep at it. Characters like this one would disappear almost completely from American cinema after the Production Code’s enforcement began in earnest around 1934, not reemerging for decades.
Today, the film’s stature, and fame as the oft-cited “inspiration for The Joker” in DC Comics, can’t help but make one wonder how it might have turned out differently if made only a few years later, in the talkie era at Universal. Would Gwynplaine, despite being the hero of Hugo’s story, somehow have found himself on a pedestal among the Universal Monsters, thanks to his admittedly disturbing face? Would sequels have followed, involving Gwynplaine’s run-ins with Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster? It’s easy to imagine that Gwynplaine could have been stripped of his protagonist status in the sound era, coming off more like the scar-faced villain in William Castle’s 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus, which draws clear inspiration from The Man Who Laughs in everything but its empathetic nature.
1929: Un Chien Andalou
Although 1927’s The Jazz Singer was a big hit at the box office, sending audiences into a tizzy about the possibilities of cinematic “talkies,” it surprisingly wasn’t followed up by an immediate rush of sound pictures. Indeed, the majority of theaters weren’t equipped to exhibit talkies until the end of the decade, and a number of studios simply waited for the “fad” to pass before green-lighting their own sound pictures. Not until 1929 and 1930 did it become clear that the “fad” was soon to replace the old way of life entirely.
The horror genre, too, was a bit slow to adapt, and there are few works of note from 1929 or 1930—one imagines that the industry was busy grappling with more existential horrors in the face of its changing landscape. The few 1929 horror talkies that exist, such as The Unholy Night—which happens to contain an uncredited role by a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff—are both ponderous and unnatural feeling, with stilted performances that highlight the industry’s unfamiliarity with an emerging technology. For now, at least, the best pictures are still of the silent variety. Notable among them is the very first of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series, The Skeleton Dance, with skeleton animation from pioneering cartoonist Ub Iwerks that would be re-used countless times in the years to come.
1929 Honorable Mentions: The Last Warning, The Unholy Night, The Skeleton Dance
The Film: Un Chien Andalou
Director: Luis Buñuel
This is the only entry in our Century of Terror project to highlight a short film rather than a feature, which speaks both to the lack of quality horror features in 1929 and the enduring status of Un Chien Andalou as a foundational entry in the history of film surrealism. Is this project, conceived by director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí, really an expression of “horror,” per se? Well, not exactly—not in the classical sense, anyway. But the intent of the piece, according to its creators, was to shock, anger and unsettle, and ultimately that’s a horror film in our books. The fact that the film’s most famous shot involves an eye being sliced open with a razor only adds to its horror legitimacy.
Un Chien Andalou is a loosely constructed series of vignettes, some of which are implied to involve the same “characters,” but the film never deigns to name anyone, and the same actors portray multiple, distinct people—choices presumably made to advance a sense of befuddlement. Even the title is meaningless, translating to “An Andalusian Dog.” Intertitles offer up time stamps like “once upon a time,” “eight years later” and “around three in the morning” without any impact on plot, setting or the appearances of the characters, leading the audience to question why it was given this information at all. The easiest way to sum up anything regarding “plot” and Un Chien Andalou is to say that it involves a man and a woman … and that they don’t exactly get along.
The actual imagery, meanwhile, isn’t for the squeamish. Beyond the infamous eyeball-cutting sequence (it was actually a calf’s eye, which doesn’t make it any less gross), the 20-some minutes of footage include such sights as a man’s hand crawling with ants, a woman being run over by a car and a man dragging a pair of grand pianos that are stuffed with the decaying bodies of two donkeys. Modern viewings of this kind of footage benefit also from the otherworldly sort of quality that tends to be afforded when one views a strange silent film in a world of smartphones and YouTube videos—what was decidedly weird in 1929 only seems all the weirder now, given our modern standard of entertainment. Watching Un Chien Andalou in 2019 feels like you’re picking up on a strange transmission from an alien world—one where film scenes are placed in no particular narrative order, and the general goal is maximum disorientation. Although “dream-like” is a term that often gets thrown around in film description, this is one film that actually operates with the irrational logic of a fever dream, and the sense that one is an unwilling passenger who has been shanghaied into the audience.
In its time, Un Chien Andalou represented a new method of visually conceptualizing the prominent psychological philosophy of Freudian free association—today, it’s more of a novel, disconcerting diversion. But considering that it’s one of the few films on this list you can view on YouTube in its entirety, over a lunch break, we encourage you to do so.
1930: The Unholy Three
It’s years like 1930 that make our Century of Terror a genuinely challenging project to undertake. Put simply, this is one of the weaker overall years in horror history, and probably the weakest year for horror in the (mostly) pre-sound era.
It’s funny to think that such a fallow year would fall now, of all times—a true calm before the storm, one year before a bumper crop completely transforms the genre in 1931. Had Universal’s Dracula but arrived a month and a half earlier (it was released Feb. 12, 1931), it would be the obvious pick for this year, blowing the rest of the competition out of the water. Instead, things get a lot more obscure, and there really isn’t any classic offering. Several of the films we discuss this year are tenuously “horror” at best.
Old Dark House movies at least have some representation in 1930, although Rupert Julian’s The Cat Creeps, one of several remakes of The Cat and the Canary, is now considered lost. The most notable of the other films is The Bat Whispers, another by-the-books Old Dark House yarn about a masked bank robber/potential monster named The Bat who terrorizes the inhabitants of a country house on a dark and stormy night. Although a serviceable example of the genre, the film is remembered by many today as being a potential inspiration for Batman, as cited by the character’s co-creator, Bob Kane, rather than for its other merits.
Ingagi, meanwhile, is mostly just notable as an example of the era’s incredible racial insensitivity, as the tale about African women (white actors in blackface) breeding with monstrous gorillas was indicative of the purportedly “ethnographic” films of the time, which were in reality largely excuses to deliver nudity and sexual suggestiveness on screen under the guise of “education” on foreign/savage cultures.
1930 Honorable Mentions: The Bat Whispers, The Cat Creeps, Ingagi
The Film: The Unholy Three
Director: Jack Conway
The Unholy Three is noteworthy for a few reasons, although in truth it’s more of a crime thriller or melodrama first, with horror elements second. It’s a sound remake of a silent film made only five years earlier, by future Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning, and the two films are actually quite similar, although the silent precurosor is a bit more polished. Of the titular “three,” two of the more important players return: Lon Chaney and little person actor Harry Doll Earles.
The rather implausible plot of The Unholy Three involves a trio of circus performers—a ventriloquist ringleader (Chaney), a strongman (Ivan Linow) and “20-inch man” sideshow act Tweedledee (Earles)—who go on the lam and disguise themselves as pet store proprietors in a scheme to rob their customers. This involves adult little person Earles posing as a baby, and Chaney’s character posing as a grandmother, among other things, and the hijinks quickly escalate from petty larceny all the way to murder. There’s mayhem, double-crossing and a literal gorilla on the loose at one point, making the story sound like a farce, but it’s all played fairly straight.
Today, the film is remembered for a few reasons—the presence of Earles, who would go on to be one of Hollywood’s most visible little person performers, including a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz, but mostly for the fact that it proved to be Chaney’s final feature film before his death from throat cancer only a month after its release. As a result, the film proved to be Chaney’s only talkie performance.
With that in mind, The Unholy Three remake actually goes a long way in bolstering Chaney’s legend by showing that he did indeed have the chops to make the transition into the sound era. His presence is considerably more natural and magnetic than anyone else in the film, and he seems at ease with a new style of performance. It’s certainly enough to make you wonder what kind of character he would have brought to Count Dracula, had he survived and been cast in the part, as Universal fully intended. To think of how different vampire film history might have turned out, if it was Chaney, rather than Lugosi, playing Dracula! It will forever remain one of horror’s biggest “what-ifs.”
Stay tuned, because 1931 is the year that changes the horror genre forever.
Finally, the big one—the most groundbreaking and influential year in horror history, as the genre goes from being a minor sideshow attraction to one of the biggest tickets in Hollywood. Slow as it was to embrace the sound era, this is the year when sound films finally become the norm for horror, and our conception of the classical Universal monster movie is truly born, despite the presence of Phantom of the Opera in 1925.
It’s also one of the first years of our Century of Terror project in which it’s genuinely difficult to choose a “best” film, and strong arguments could be made for any number of iconic stories. The year starts out strong with Tod Browning’s Dracula, giving us the Hollywood discovery of Béla Lugosi, who filled in for what was intended all along as yet another Lon Chaney role. Lugosi would go on to play countless sinister foreigners and mad doctors over the next two decades in Hollywood, oftentimes alongside Boris Karloff, but he would never shed his image as the soft-spoken but hypnotic Count. The film establishes so many archetypes that continue to dominate (or be knowingly subverted) in vampire cinema to this day, from world-weary and grizzled vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing to Dwight Frye’s ravenous familiar Renfield, whose character outline persists all the way into FX’s current serialization of Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows. Almost 90 years later, quotes from Dracula are still immediately recognizable to even casual cinemagoers, a feat that few films of the era can match.
And yet, it’s really not Dracula that stands as the strongest Universal contender of 1931—it’s the crown jewel of the studio’s golden age of monster movies, Frankenstein. Technically superior, and with the benefit of more lively, engaging direction from James Whale, who seems a bit more comfortable working in the sound medium, Frankenstein is an unchallenged masterpiece, albeit one that is perhaps surpassed several times by its first two sequels. Its heart is of course the all-time great performance from Boris Karloff as “the monster,” perhaps the first time that many audiences had seen such a role swimming in obvious pathos for a creature designated in the collective imagination as the film’s “villain.” Unlike sequels Bride of Frankenstein or Son of Frankenstein, one can say that there really is no true antagonist to the first film—the monster is a pitiable figure lashing out against a world that instinctively condemns him the moment they lay eyes on him. Rather, it’s humanity’s own failings—both our hubris and our lack of empathy—that are highlighted. Thematically, it made for much richer horror fodder than many of the lesser monster films that would follow.
But wait, there’s more. 1931 also plays host to what is perhaps the most iconic version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March in the title role, as well as the Spanish language version of Universal’s Dracula, which sadly loses Bela Lugosi’s performance but instead gains what is arguably more dynamic eye for shot composition and cinematography. As others have since observed, the perfect Dracula might very well be a combination of the two films.
The legacy of 1931 on the horror genre was felt deeply for the next several decades in U.S. and world cinema. With the smashing box office success of Dracula and Frankenstein in particular, horror entered a boom period that resulted in both quality offerings and a flood of cheap schlock, but the genre rarely fell out of vogue ever again.
1931 Honorable Mentions: Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Svengali
The Film: M
Director: Fritz Lang
The choice of Fritz Lang’s M over the likes of Dracula or Frankenstein ultimately boils down to the inventiveness the film’s director displays in adapting to a new era of cinema. Lang, the creative force behind the ambitious silent masterpiece Metropolis, does not simply adapt his shooting style to the presence of sound during the talkie era—rather, he becomes fascinated by the possibilities presented by synched sound on screen. Whereas one could say that Dracula and Frankenstein play like classic stories that just so happen to be presented at the beginning of the sound era, M has considered the dramatic possibilities offered by the new technology on a much deeper level. Some of this comes across as a bit cheesy or ostentatious when watching the film today, as with the clamorous street noises in many scenes, but other aspects of Lang’s use of sound—such as the presence of film’s first leitmotif in the tune whistled by Peter Lorre—were groundbreakingly effective.
Indeed, there are few sequences in cinema that more effectively establish a setting, a villain, and an air of constant suspense than the first 7 minutes or so of M. It begins with a chorus of children on the playground, chanting one of the more disturbing nursery rhymes you’re going to hear in a film: “The man in black will come for you, and with his little chopper turn you into ground beef.” Already, we know that a killer stalks the streets, with little girls as his target. When little Elsie comes across the silhouette of a man who offers to buy her a balloon, we know where things are headed, but it makes the following shots of deserted city streets, an abandoned laundry room and her empty place at the dinner table no less chilling, as her mother’s calls plaintively ring out over each static image. Lang uses the new medium of sound to expert effect, contrasting largely silent, suspense-building sequences with startling clamor and tumult, one right after the other.
The killer in question, Hans Beckert, is played by the great Peter Lorre in the first major role of his career, and it cemented his image as a villain for the vast majority of the next three decades. It’s a beautiful, vulnerable performance, but one that is used only sparingly—Lorre is almost completely absent from the first half of the film, as it intensely focuses on the mystery of the killer’s identity and the scale of the manhunt and dragnet over the city. Lorre, shown only in small flashes, is a cipher who doesn’t really receive a characterization at first, purposefully allowing the audience to condemn him and come to conclusions about their moral superiority, before Lorre’s final, impassioned plea before a kangaroo court turns the film completely on its head. Together, Lorre and his appointed criminal “lawyer” make startling arguments about the nature of free will, culpability and the right of any man to judge his fellow man, opening the viewer’s eyes to the considerably more complicated nature of “evil” than the black-and-white dichotomy we’d prefer to exist. It’s these final 15 minutes that cement M as a masterpiece among psychological thrillers.
With 1931 in our rear view mirror, the floodgates have now opened on the horror genre in American film, only rarely to slow up ever again. 1932 is marked by a preponderance of solid genre efforts, even if few of them really ascend to the iconic stature of either Dracula or Frankenstein. The volume, however, is pretty impressive.
On the Universal front, we’ve got Boris Karloff portraying arguably the most complex of the original Universal monsters, Imhotep, in The Mummy. A more languidly placed and character-driven film than either Dracula or Frankenstein, the romantic melodrama nature of The Mummy tends to surprise viewers who expect it to revolve around a shambling, strangler of a mummy wrapped in bandages. Indeed, Karloff is only truly bandaged for the first sequence of the film—for the rest of its run, he’s portraying the crafty Imhotep as he attempts to blend in with modern Egyptian society, complete with some beautifully subtle and intricately detailed makeup from Universal monster designer Jack Pierce. The “shuffling around and killing people” mummies, on the other hand, are a fixture of the film’s five sequels, which descend in quality fairly rapidly.
Elsewhere, Karloff appears again as another disfigured monster in the zenith of the Old Dark House genre … The Old Dark House … while his contemporary, Lugosi, is not to be left out of the fun, appearing in both influential “voodoo zombie” film White Zombie and in the essential early telling of The Island of Dr. Moreau, titled Island of Lost Souls. That film starred Capt. Bligh himself, Charles Naughton, in the role of the preening Moreau, in a screen adaptation that no other version of the classic H.G. Wells story has successfully approached—Lugosi himself is stuck as the absurdly hairy “Sayer of Law.”
Finally, 1932 also offers up one of many adaptations of human-hunting tale The Most Dangerous Game, and one more strong contender for the #1 spot: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s expressionist masterpiece Vampyr. That film, although more than a little bit inspired by the box office success of Dracula, shares more in common with the German expressionist classics of the decade before it, especially in its uniquely soft focus and fuzzy, dreamlike visuals. Critical esteem for Vampyr has only continued to rise in the 2000s, ultimately making 1932 a toss-up between the painterly weirdness of Vampyr and the transgressive story of Tod Browning’s Freaks.
1932 Honorable Mentions: Vampyr, The Mummy, The Old Dark House, Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game, White Zombie
The Film: Freaks
Director: Tod Browning
There are few films of the 1930s, no matter how shocking their intent, that can still claim to possess any kind of taboo aura—except for Freaks, that is. The film is unique among those of its time in the disturbing nature of both its imagery and its all-too-true indictment of human misanthropy. You can call Freaks exploitative all you want—and let’s be honest, it really is—but it’s simultaneously one of the era’s most daring pieces of outsider art. Which is funny, considering it came out of MGM, of all places.
Freaks is the story of supposed lovebirds Cleopatra and Hans, circus performers who are due to be married. Cleopatra is a beautiful but penniless trapeze artist. Hans is a “sideshow midget” played by Harry Earles of The Unholy Three, and you can’t deny he gets much more of a plum role here—he’s not a man standing in for a baby again, at the very least. The only problem with the upcoming nuptials is the fact that they’re a sham—Cleopatra is only interested in the diminutive Hans for his money, and is planning to have him killed by her true lover, circus strongman Hercules. The only people standing between Cleopatra, Hercules and the fortune possessed by Hans are the latter’s small army of “freak” friends, from the Human Skeleton and the Bearded Lady to “Pinhead Zip” and “Koo-Koo the Bird Girl.”
The horror of Freaks comes on several levels. There is, to be sure, plenty of surface-level revulsion here. Its real-life performers come in an array of disturbingly unusual physiologies, sufferers of various genetic and developmental disorders that surely made their lives much more difficult. A modern audience (and indeed, the contemporary audience as well) is both repulsed by some of the faces on screen, and contrite about their own repulsion. These were human beings; many of them lifelong circus sideshow performers, totally out of their element appearing in a Hollywood film. There’s no way to make a horror film with these kinds of performers without it being at least moderately exploitative.
At the same time, though, the more lasting contribution of Freaks to horror cinema is its scathing criticism of society’s instinct to demonize and dehumanize those who are different. Cleopatra is of course an audience proxy in the way she looks at the freaks as sub-human specimens who exist to enrich her and bring her the things she’s always wanted in life—the things she believes she deserves, as a “normal” person. It’s little wonder that the status of Freaks as a horror classic began with the 1960s counterculture, as those who chose to turn their back on popular society, likely being labeled “freaks” themselves, rediscovered Browning’s film as a lost time capsule of similar sentiment. Of course, one wonders how much more shocking it all could have been had the original, 90-minute cut of the film had remained intact, rather than the surviving, 64-minute edited cut, which MGM produced in an attempt to salvage their losses after terrible test screenings.
Not that it helped Freaks at the box office. The film was a huge disappointment to its studio and for its director, and even in its edited state it remained so infamous in the years to follow that Browning—the man who had made Dracula only one year earlier—was practically blacklisted afterward. And yet Freaks, despite being less famous than his defining vampire film, is arguably the more vital work in 2019. After all, how many midnight, art theater screenings of Dracula have you ever seen? That’s the flip side of infamy: cultural permanence.
1933: King Kong
The momentum of the early 1930s keeps rolling in 1933, as a variety of studios celebrate the newfound profitability of the horror genre. Thanks to King Kong, this is a formative year for the idea of the “giant monster” movie, which you can argue exists somewhere outside of horror—but we think it, along with its progeny, belongs here. Certainly, nearly every “creature feature” for the next several decades is deeply indebted to King Kong, and few come anywhere close to matching up with it.
In Germany, operating under the watchful eye of the Nazi party (which would later ban the film), Fritz Lang produced The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, his last German-language film before emigrating to France and then the U.S.A. A crime drama with touches of the supernatural, it continued the story he first told in the silent, Expressionist classic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. In only his second sound film, Lang showed his ability to grow and thrive with the change in technology, opting for a more naturalistic (but still thrilling) visual style than his earlier Expressionist work. It was experience that would serve him well as he went on to direct numerous film noir classics in the U.S. throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
On the Universal side of the spectrum, 1933 is home to The Invisible Man, which always stands as one of the more underrated entries in the original Universal Monsters canon. Claude Rains delivers a classic performance as the imperious and haughty Dr. Jack Griffin, who is turned invisible by a botched science experiment and slowly descends into delusions of grandeur. Less focused on atmosphere and gothic frights than Dracula or Frankenstein, and somewhat less concerned with its melodramatic love story than The Mummy, The Invisible Man is more like a madcap crime caper with horror elements, thriving on Rains’ hilarious vocals and surprisingly emotive, almost vaudevillian performance while wrapped in yards and yards of bandages. It’s not among the scariest classic entries in the history of Universal Horror, but it’s absolutely one of the most purely entertaining.
1933 Honorable Mentions: The Invisible Man, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Mystery at the Wax Museum, The Ghoul
The Film: King Kong
Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
King Kong, along with Star Wars: A New Hope, is likely one of the two biggest watershed moments in the history of cinematic special effects, and that’s just the beginning of what makes King Kong such an enduring classic. It’s a film that inspired entire generations of would-be filmmakers to first seek out the tools that would lead them to careers in the motion picture industry, and there’s no bigger praise you can laud on it than that.
There had been monster movies or “creature features” before Kong, but it became the key reference point for that entire film demographic from the time of its release until the genre underwent an atomic-age reimagining with the likes of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 and Them! in 1954. Likewise, it set the bar on its special effects at such a high level that in many instances, shots and sequences from King Kong weren’t suitably duplicated for decades to come. Much of the credit belongs to pioneering stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, who was inventing new techniques on the set of Kong on a daily basis, laying a foundation for an entire field of visual effects that are still being refined by studios such as Laika (the makers of Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings) today. Those techniques were likewise carried on and further refined by O’brien’s arguably more famous protege, Ray Harryhausen, who used them to great effect in the second golden age of the monster movie, throughout the 1950s-1970s.
Kong, though, still stands as an unparalleled achievement for its time period—far grander and more ambitious in scope than most anything you can compare it to in the same time frame. On one hand it’s a rollicking adventure film, with a classic “journey into the unknown” plot that is still being recycled for modern monster installments like Kong: Skull Island. At the same time, though, it was likewise an interesting experiment in genre-blending—an FX-driven adventure-drama film with horror elements and no clear-cut, traditional “antagonist.” Carl Denham might fit the bill, but he’s better described as a naive dreamer with stars in his eyes, oblivious to the ethical quandary of shanghaiing a huge beast to display in the middle of New York City. Kong, meanwhile, is a misunderstood creature, operating on the sense of self preservation he learned in a home where he’s only ever known a daily fight for survival against a neverending stream of monsters. The film’s empathy for Kong, and its condemnation of the hubris that led to his ascent of the Empire State Building, are what helped make the story such an emotionally affecting classic.
Given that cultural potency, sequels and remakes have always followed in Kong’s wake. Only nine months later, RKO released the hastily assembled Son of Kong, made on a smaller budget and featuring an adolescent ape, but it unsurprisingly failed to generate the same kind of fervor. Subsequent efforts have ranged from the embarrassing (1986’s King Kong Lives) to the admirable efforts of Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong epic, which came the closest that any film ever has to recreating the combination of adventure and emotion seen in the original. Even now, Godzilla vs. Kong still lurks on the horizon, implying that the great ape may yet see his 100th birthday, still in the popular eye.
1934: The Black Cat
Heading into 1934, the horror genre and the first golden age of the monster movie are on a roll, but a sudden change to the filmmaking landscape throws everything into flux at this particular moment in Hollywood history. The Motion Picture Association of America had chosen to adopt the so-called Motion Picture Production Code back in 1930, largely as a response to repeated populist criticism of the motion picture industry as tawdry, morally suggestive and repeatedly scandalous. There’s some truth to this, as films of the time period were considerably more risque and sexually suggestive than in the years to follow. The Code, popularly referred to as the “Hays Code” after MPPDA President Will H. Hays, put strict limits on behaviors, imagery and subject matter that could be presented by studios in the American film industry, but its enforcement since 1930 had been effectively minimal. That is, until the ascent of Joseph L. Breen to head of the Production Code Administration, which began a sudden, rigorous enforcement of the existing code in June of 1934, requiring all films to obtain a certificate of approval before release.
The result was a huge overhaul of the process by which films could be released in the United States, which happened practically overnight, throwing the industry into disarray. In particular, the “crime,” melodrama and horror genres were most affected, given the Code’s restrictions on sexuality, language, depictions of “perversity,” and “brutality and possible gruesomeness,” to quote the Code directly.
Unsurprisingly, then, the horror genre sees something of a dip in volume and notable films in 1934, although some pre-Code films are released before enforcement suddenly begins in earnest. The only minor classic from the year is The Black Cat, largely notable for being the first film to team Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together, although it would hardly be the last. After this point, the horror genre does recover pretty quickly, although all films in the next two decades are informed on some level by its requirements.
For film geeks, it’s always a source of curiosity to wonder how horror films might have continued to evolve, had enforcement of the Code not become serious in 1934, but ultimately we should be glad it didn’t become an insurmountable hurdle for the genre.
1934 Honorable Mentions: Two Monks, The Phantom of the Convent, Black Moon
The Film: The Black Cat
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
The complete filmography of movies that claim to be adapted from the works of Edgar Allen Poe range from experimental, short art films, to slavish feature-length adaptations, to quite a few in the mold of The Black Cat: Horror-thrillers that swipe the names of famous Poe stories for their visibility in marketing otherwise unrelated films. You’ll see it throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and again under the watchful eye of Roger Corman in the 1960s—the Poe name must be one of the most exploited in horror history, although H.P. Lovecraft would likely give him a run for his money these days.
The Black Cat, however, really doesn’t need the Poe embellishment to stand out—all it needs is the names of its two stars, meeting here in their first of eight pairings. Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff were the two preeminent horror genre stars of their day, for obvious reasons. In portraying the two most important Universal monsters, each actor ensured both fame and typecasting that would last throughout their careers, but in 1934 it’s still early enough that neither seems to resent having to appear primarily in horror fare. Here, these two icons just seem to be having a great time, portraying two equally mad (although not quite equally heinous) doctors with vendettas against one another. Our protagonists are technically the newlywed couple who get swept up in the diabolical game of cat and mouse playing out between Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast and Karloff’s Dr. Poelzig, but Universal knew damn well the audience had no particular interest in the story’s ingénues. They were here to see Karloff vs. Lugosi, and in that respect The Black Cat does not disappoint.
Make no mistake, this is very much a pre-Code horror film, with plenty of content that would not have flown if it had been completed just a few months later. From the implied rape of Karloff’s stepdaughter to the film’s sacrilegious Satanism angle and hints at deeper perversions on the part of Poelzig, The Black Cat is about as depraved as horror films of the era get.
Both leads ham it up, determined to destroy one another. Lugosi is playing the lesser of two evils this time around, a wild man who wants revenge on Karloff after spending 15 years behind bars. He’s completely unhinged, his mind having been left behind with the body of his dead wife. Karloff, on the other hand, is playing the sinister mastermind archetype he does so well, grinning with arrogant self-satisfaction and letting others do his dirty work for him. It all builds to a conclusion where even the implied violence is surprisingly grotesque.
Unfortunately, The Black Cat represents a high point of the Lugosi-Karloff team-up pictures, which would slowly ebb in quality, with one very notable exception—Son of Frankenstein. But we’ll get to that at the close of the decade.
1935: Bride of Frankenstein
After taking a moment to adjust to the sea change represented by actual enforcement of the Hays Code, Hollywood studios return to producing a steady stream of horror films in 1935, led by one of the greatest horror sequels of all time in the form of Bride of Frankenstein. Sequels being more of a novelty at the time, it took four years to revisit Universal’s monster mega-hit, and it would take another four years to return for the third go-round.
This is a pretty balanced year for horror overall, with notable entries in a number of sub-genres. Prominent is Peter Lorre’s excellent starring turn in Mad Love, one of several remakes of The Hands of Orlac, our top film from 1924. Lorre, still newly arrived in Hollywood, is in the midst of being typecast as a psychopath or murderer here, probably stemming from his initial appearance in Fritz Lang’s M, but he would escape that sole characterization before too long when he took on the long-running (but racially questionable) role of Japanese detective/secret agent Mr. Moto. Regardless, he’s wonderful as Orlac, once again fearing that his hands are not his own.
1935 also yields another solid Karloff/Lugosi team-up/Edgar Allen Poe rip-off in the form of The Raven, notably less grotesque than The Black Cat a year earlier thanks to the Production Code, along with influential early werewolf yarn Werewolf of London, which blessed us with the sight of a dapper werewolf in a smoking jacket. Lastly, 1935’s Tod Browning-directed Mark of the Vampire is notable for the fact that it’s the only other film outside of Dracula and Return of the Vampire where Lugosi played a vampire character, although the enthusiasm is somewhat tempered by the fact that the twist ending reveals that the film’s vampires are simply actors pretending to be vampires. This is a bit of plot anachronism you would have expected to see in the 1910s or 1920s, rather than the 1930s, when monsters were being treated as more literal threats, but it makes more sense when you consider that Mark of the Vampire was more or less a sound remake of the famously lost silent horror film London After Midnight.
1935 Honorable Mentions: Mad Love, The Raven, Werewolf of London, Mark of the Vampire
The Film: Bride of Frankenstein
Director: James Whale
The idea that Bride of Frankenstein represents a sequel “even better than the original!” is one that has become so common in the circles of internet film criticism that it almost borders on a modern critics’ cliche, but that doesn’t make the observation any less accurate. In fact, one can point to Bride as evidence of just how far the talky studio system had come in the space of four years, from 1931 to 1935—it’s a significantly more polished, more ambitious movie, made all the stronger by James Whale’s confident and dynamic direction, coming off the likes of The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. It’s the director’s magnum opus, completed several years before his reluctance to remain in the closet likely contributed to the early end of his career. Much has subsequently been made of the possible homoerotic subtext of Whale’s films, and Bride of Frankenstein in particular, but that’s enough for a separate essay all its own.
Bride picks up directly where Frankenstein left off, as villagers celebrate the supposed death of Henry Frankenstein’s (a returning Colin Clive, better here than in the original) creature in the burning windmill climax of the original film. The monster, of course, is not dead—it survives in a flooded pit under the windmill, although the burn scars it now bears take Jack Pierce’s already impressive makeup to the next level. It soon emerges, scaring the bejeezus out of Frankenstein’s maid Minnie, played with hilariously shrill excess by character actress Una O’Connor. This sort of gallows humor is just one aspect that makes it stand out in a different way than Frankenstein.
After his experience in the first film, Dr. Frankenstein has become disenchanted with the thought of playing God and creating life, and vows to set his work aside to enjoy the peace of married life. That is, until the reemergence of an old colleague, the beguiling Dr. Pretorious, who has been exploring research that runs parallel to Frankenstein’s. With the cunning of a snake, the exceedingly arch Dr. Pretorious—in an all-time villain performance by British actor Ernest Thesiger—succeeds in first tempting and then forcing Dr. Frankenstein into doing his bidding, because “the monster demands a mate!” As Pretorious, Thesiger steals practically every scene, turning the monster into another one of his pawns to be used in pursuit of knowledge and power.
Karloff, meanwhile, initially opposed the idea that the Monster learn to haltingly speak in Bride of Frankenstein, but it turns out for the best, deepening the creature’s sense of loneliness and loss, particularly in the oft-parodied sequence when the Monster befriends a blind hermit in the woods, with ruinous results. Pretorius later uses this turn of events to further needle Dr. Frankenstein, taking credit for his “education” of the Monster, even as he uses the situation to further his own ends. In the end, Bride completes the process of humanizing the creature that is begun in the first Frankenstein, bringing its tragic arc full circle. The only other Frankenstein sequel that can stand in the same company is 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, but it functions more as top-notch popular entertainment than Bride’s sublime examination of the existential agony of existing as a perennial outsider.
1936: The Devil Doll
Looking back on the Hollywood of yesteryear, it’s funny to see how much more quickly a supposed fad was apparently expected to run its course. Whereas a genre like the modern “superhero movie” has been going strong since the beginning of the 2000s, showing absolutely no signs of slowing down, studio executives by 1936 seemed to believe that audiences were getting fed up with all this horror and monster malarky, only five years after Dracula and Frankenstein first invigorated the genre in 1931. Obviously, anyone who thought horror was a passing novelty turned out to be wrong, but the genre now cools off for a few years, before coming roaring back at the end of the decade.
With that said, 1936 is still relatively strong in terms of volume of horror—certainly much stronger than 1937-1938 will be. It’s notable for giving us the first true sequel to Dracula in the form of the unexpected, still-confounding Dracula’s Daughter, a rare female-fronted horror feature for the era that has generated countless film essays in the years since for its nebulous lesbian overtones—themes that would reappear again and again in the 1970s, in films such as The Vampire Lovers. The year is also home to a few Karloff features, such as the Michael Curtiz-directed The Walking Dead, and another Lugosi/Karloff team-up in The Invisible Ray—both decidedly B-pictures at best.
Still, it’s a better slate than what was to come, as horror entered one of its most fallow periods in the late 1930s.
1936 Honorable Mentions: Dracula’s Daughter, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Walking Dead, The Invisible Ray
The Film: The Devil Doll
Director: Tod Browning
A few years earlier into this decade, The Devil Doll would have been an entertaining dalliance that ended up in our honorable mentions, but for 1936 it’s the best option based on its weirdo novelty alone. Combining elements of crime films, science fiction and horror, it almost feels more like a 1950s sci-fi horror film—especially The Incredible Shrinking Man—than it does like a horror film from its own period.
Lionel Barrymore stars here as Paul Lavond, a man who has spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Making his escape with the help of a scientist who has perfected a formula for shrinking down human beings to the size of a toy—a scientist who conveniently dies along the way, passing on his knowledge to Barrymore—Lavond decides to use his new knowledge, along with the scientist’s widow, to take revenge on those who set him up and ruined his life. And, as they say in the famous expression, revenge is a dish best served in the form of human doll murders.
The film’s modern infamy and cult status comes from the fact that in order to do this, and get close to his victims, Lavond decides to take on the disguise of an old woman—meaning that Barrymore spends the vast majority of the film in rather unconvincing drag, planting tiny accomplices in the homes of his targets, where they pose as dolls until it’s time to strike. This is absolutely as ludicrous in practice as it sounds in description, and one gets the sense that the only way the cross-dressing aspect of the film got past the Hays code is that it’s treated with total absurdity rather than any sense of sexual satisfaction.
Still, The Devil Doll is notable for its very competent effects work, essentially taking the same “miniaturization” effect seen in Pretorious’ creations in Bride of Frankenstein and making it the lynchpin of the plot. The tiny people here interact with their environments in ways that are considerably more realistic and creative than the short segment featuring miniatures in Bride, so Devil Doll does deserve credit for doing at least one thing better than one of the most beloved horror films of all time. In the end, though, Devil Doll is less a film classic and more of a quaint piece of cinematic camp, still fun to see in the context of a snarky midnight screening.
1937: Song at Midnight
It’s strange to think that only 6 years after the horror genre first saw its highest highs in America, it began to see one of its lowest lows. There were a number of reasons for the slowdown—for one, the Laemmle family, which had founded Universal, lost control of the studio in 1936 and it spelled a temporary end to the company’s horror focus, as the new management didn’t find horror worth the trouble of dealing with the increasingly stifling Production Code. At the same time, the important American film market of Great Britain instituted tighter restrictions on horror film ratings—not a death knell in and of itself, but spun that way by Joseph Breen and his Production Code Administration, who wished to suppress the production of horror films in general, given that they didn’t jibe with the Code. All in all, Breen and co. almost seem to have convinced American studios that horror
A. Wasn’t worth the trouble of producing, and
B. Had lost the popular support of the masses, and would no longer be viable at the box office.
This, of course, was fallacy, which is easy to see now, but would not have been that hard to believe at the time. The genre would come back in a big way in 1939, but for now the world production of horror films is as minimal as it’s ever been since before 1920. Only the presence of China’s first horror film, Song at Midnight, gives us something notable to write about for 1937.
1937 Honorable Mentions: Lonesome Ghosts, A Night of Terror
The Film: Song at Midnight
Director: Ma-Xu Weibang
Saving the day in terms of giving us something to write about for 1937 is Song at Midnight, often referred to as China’s first true horror film. This is a loose remake of The Phantom of the Opera, inspired heavily in certain areas by the famous, 1925 Universal version with Lon Chaney, although it also diverges in some interesting ways in terms of representing its own culture. In several aspects, Song at Midnight actually presages creative decisions that would be present in the 1943 Universal Phantom with Claude Rains, such as having the Phantom’s face burned by acid.
Other changes include the character of opera singer Christine, who is gender swapped here into a male performer named Sun Xiao Ou, who is not captured by the Phantom but instead given tutelage by him. Indeed, this version of the Phantom is less the tragic antihero of some other adaptations, and is much closer to being a genuine, sympathetic protagonist instead. He’s played quite skillfully by actor Shan Jin, and there are some wonderful moments with the Phantom in recovery from his attack, such as when he first removes his bandages and is nearly driven mad by the visage of his melted, grotesque face. He’s even given a chance to seek revenge directly for the attack that ruined his life, which certainly isn’t something you see from Chaney in 1925.
In terms of execution, on the other hand, Song at Midnight is a mixed bag, which you can see for yourself in several versions that are readily available online. Most of the English subtitles are a mess, making it difficult to follow the plot in a number of areas, and the sound effects in particular are distractingly amateurish. The music is more difficult for a Western audience to connect with as well, although the makeup effects on the Phantom’s face are actually top notch, and the visuals are shot competently, if grainily. What Song at Midnight could really use, in terms of modern presentation, is an HD remaster, but that seems unlikely given its lack of reputation.
Now we just need to get through one more lean year for horror, before the genre makes it triumphant return.
Well, here we are: The bottom of the late ’30s horror trough. For all the reasons we discussed in yesterday’s post on 1937, the industry had completely bottomed out on the horror genre at this point. None of the major Hollywood studios felt like going up against Joseph Breen’s Production Code Administration in getting their horror stories certified without major revisions and constant nitpicking, and the consensus seemed to be that the finicky public had lost interest in the gothic monster movies that were all the rage at the beginning of the decade.
Suffice to say, everyone was wrong. The first indication came when an L.A. grindhouse theater put on a limited double-bill of 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein, opening to unexpected sold-out crowds who were ravenous to see the films that had so frightened the populace seven years earlier. Universal, paying close attention to what was unfolding, began a national re-release of a Dracula/Frankenstein double bill, and the rest is history. The films did tremendous business, their pop cultural stature having only grown during the years when they were more or less unavailable—keep in mind that this is long before the era of freely available home film screening. Audiences turned out in droves to see the classic monsters, which in turn jump-started Universal’s plans for a triumphant return of Frankenstein’s monster in 1939.
Here in 1938, however, the pickings are extremely slim. There are a handful of crime films or thrillers that border on horror territory, but little that really qualifies in a literal way. The year can at least claim to be home to one of the most notorious of lost monster movies: The Japanese King Kong Appears in Edo, which appears to have been simply ripping off the “Kong” name in order to tell a strange story about a trained ape kidnapping a young girl. Decades later, the supposed content of King Kong Appears in Edo is still hotly debated among kaiju film aficionados, with a lack of agreement on almost everything, including whether the ape in the film was actually a giant. Conflicting reports and confusing, surviving production stills are all that seem to be left, which is par for the course when it comes to the lack of content in 1938.
1938 Honorable Mentions: The Terror, King Kong Appears in Edo, Kaibyô nazo no shamisen
The Film: J’accuse!
Director: Abel Gance
Anti-war films don’t get much more devastatingly, soul-baringly earnest than Abel Gance’s J’accuse!/I Accuse!, which commits with over-the-top intensity to its single-minded mission to turn the hearts and minds of the proletariat toward pacifism. Arriving in French theaters a year before the outbreak of World War II, it presages much of the coming conflict, even as it reflects with horror upon the still-fresh wounds of the first World War. For director Gance, it’s clear that the previous 20 years have done nothing to dull the outrage he feels toward those who allowed the war to happen at all.
This version of J’accuse! can alternatingly be referred to as either a remake or a reimagining of Gance’s own, better-known silent version of the same story from 1919, also titled J’accuse!. As in the original, it’s the story of two French men serving on the front in WWI, simultaneously embroiled in love affairs with the same woman. This makes the film sound more like a romantic melodrama in its first act, but it then transitions into a harrowing portrait of idealist mania in the 20 years following the war. The survivor, Jean Diaz, leaves the battlefield with a solemn vow: To prevent another such war from ever happening again, largely through sheer force of will. As he becomes increasingly unhinged in his castigation of society, delivering soliloquy after soliloquy on such topics as the need for love over victory, he comes to believe he is somehow spiritually empowered to save humanity from itself. As the mouthpiece of the director, Gance apparently thought much the same, seemingly naive though his hopes may have been.
In terms of horror bonafides, this version of J’accuse! stands out in two areas. First is in its depiction of death and hopeless futility on the battlefield, seemingly taking inspiration from Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front and laying some groundwork for Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. And then of course there’s the genuinely disturbing ending, in which the spirits of the dead slain in the first World War seem to rise from their graves, shambling back into service like Romero’s ghouls, 30 years before Night of the Living Dead. This sequence ends with the showcasing of actual, disfigured former soldiers of the Great War, which is difficult to look at even today. Naturally, it calls into question the nature of exploitation vs. unflinching responsibility to confront the horrors of the past, but it’s guaranteed to leave any audience feeling uneasy, regardless of their opinion on its ethics.
There are film fans who point to this J’accuse! as a lesser product than its silent, 1919 predecessor, but the presence of prolific French actor Victor Francen gives it an emotional identity that stands distinct from Gance’s earlier effort. His wild-eyed pontifications on the futility of war may strike a modern audience as somewhat self-aggrandizing, but it’s difficult not to be drawn under Jean Diaz’s spell, all the same. Just try not to feel a little guilt, when he points in your direction and says J’accuse!
1939: Son of Frankenstein
After one of the driest periods in the history of horror cinema, from 1936-1938, the floodgates finally open in 1939, spilling forth all those pent-up cinematic nightmares. The unprecedented success of the re-release double bill of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 convinced Universal that there was more blood to be had from this particular stone, so they put Son of Frankenstein into production right away. That film, fortunately enough, turned out to be a classic, standing alongside Bride and the original Frankenstein as the third chapter in a near-perfect trilogy. More on that below.
The rest of the industry was not far behind, releasing a slew of new chillers that proved audiences hadn’t grown sour on horror—far from it. Basil Rathbone has the notoriety of starring in not one, or two, but three of this year’s films of note—the aforementioned Son of Frankenstein first and foremost, along with Tower of London and the horror-tinged Hound of the Baskervilles, one of Rathbone’s many appearances playing Sherlock Holmes.
Also recommended is Boris Karloff’s classic supervillain appearance in the low-budget Columbia horror flick The Man They Could Not Hang, which essentially puts Karloff into the same “scientist playing god” position he’s playing opposite to in Frankenstein. This time, Karloff’s Dr. Savaard is sentenced to death for conducting a dangerous experiment that results in a man’s death, and then swears he’ll return from the dead in order to avenge himself upon the judge and jury. This he does with the aid of his own scientific device, eventually trapping those responsible for his execution in a house full of deathtraps. Karloff is at his imperious best here, proving that within the space of a single year he could portray both a sympathetic creature and a genuinely devious human monster, in a role that would anticipate “horror revenge” tales such as Vincent Price’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
1939 Honorable Mentions: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Man They Could Not Hang, The Cat and the Canary, Tower of London.
The Film: Son of Frankenstein
Director: Rowland V. Lee
The grand return of Universal’s monster series, following a four-year hiatus, could hardly have hoped for a better film to represent it. Son of Frankenstein doesn’t quite have the sheer pathos present in the original, or in Bride, but in many ways it surpasses either of the first two installments, especially when it comes to production value. This is a sumptuous gothic horror film, arguably the most beautiful of any that Universal produced in its golden era of “gods and monsters”—it’s a shame that it was also the last true “A” picture for the Frankenstein series, which would drop sharply in budget afterward. Either way, we get one last hurrah, and one more great Frankenstein film, cementing this series as the crown jewel of Universal’s horror franchises.
This time around, our de facto protagonist isn’t Henry Frankenstein but his son, Wolf Frankenstein, as played by top-billed Basil Rathbone. Wolf has lived a life of shame, away from his family’s ancestral homeland, due to infamy caused by his father’s experiments. Determined to reclaim his dynasty and family reputation, Wolf moves his family back to the ancestral Frankenstein castle, only to find that there are more than ghosts waiting for him in its abandoned laboratories and crypts. Many of the film’s plot points will indeed seem familiar to those who have seen Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which draws on this movie even more heavily than it does the previous two. Yes, even the inspector with the mechanical arm is here, grimly informing the audience that he lost it as a boy when the monster “tore it out by the roots.” Yikes.
Karloff has one last go-round in him as the monster in this film—the last time he would ever don the makeup until an episode of the TV series Route 66 in the 1960s. Sadly, his characterization is somewhat reduced from the growth he experienced in Bride—rather than building upon the monster’s dawning consciousness and ability to speak, he’s instead regressed to being a mute again, which robs him of some pathos. Regardless, this disappointment is made up for by the presence of Béla Lugosi in one of his most charmingly wicked roles, as the hunchbacked servant “Ygor.” Yes, this is the introduction of the concept of an “Igor” into the Frankenstein mythos, if you were wondering, the assistant in the original film having been named “Fritz.” As Ygor, Lugosi practically steals the entire film, playing a coldly calculating psychopath who was sentenced to death by hanging years earlier, but somehow managed to survive, with the neck scars to prove it. Wielding influence over the revived monster, he uses the creature as a tool to seek his own particular brand of revenge. He’s fabulous from start to finish, really showing off what Lugosi was capable of in a role that was tailored to his strengths.
More than anything while watching Son of Frankenstein, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the incredible, expansive sets, the Expressionist-inspired backdrops and the classically creepy presence they help conjure. Laboratory scenes full of arcing Jacob’s ladders don’t get any better than this, at least until the British revival under Hammer in the 1950s and 1960s, which would bring the story of Frankenstein alive in lurid color. For its time, though, Son of Frankenstein feels like an apex in horror being treated as a truly populist, blockbuster enterprise. It may very well be the most purely entertaining Frankenstein movie ever made.
After the success of Son of Frankenstein in 1939 and the subsequent rush to get horror films back into production, 1940 is chock full of horror flicks of all kinds, from dramatic thrillers that only border on the edges of the genre, to more “mad doctor” movies that will proliferate like weeds this decade, to lighthearted horror comedies such as The Ghost Breakers, which stars a boyish Bob Hope.
Notable this year is the emergence of one Vincent Leonard Price Jr., at the very beginning of his career, starring in two films of note: The mystery/gothic drama The House of the Seven Gables and Universal’s The Invisible Man Returns. In the latter, he plays the title role of Geoffrey Radcliffe, the titular invisible man in this installment, a wrongfully convicted criminal who is turned invisible in order to slip the hangman’s noose. Although he’s not playing the same character that Claude Rains did in 1933, Price brings the same charisma and hint of satirical humor to the role. He would spend the next two decades largely performing in dramas, until 1953’s House of Wax made him a horror icon to be exploited heavily by Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe films of the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in horror typecasting for the rest of his long career. Price would ultimately have credited screen roles in seven decades.
1940 is a year for lesser Universal horror works in general, as The Mummy’s Hand kicks off a rather meandering series of sequels without Boris Karloff, in which the shambling mummy Kharis slowly and unstoppably lurches around and strangles people to the tune of three more sequels: The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Curse and The Mummy’s Ghost, which descend in quality pretty rapidly. Karloff and Lugosi, meanwhile, are at it again in Black Friday, while Karloff ultimately appears in four different horror films this year, which also include Before I Hang and The Man With Nine Lives. Suffice to say, the guy took advantage of all the work he could while the getting was good.
1940 Honorable Mentions: The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy’s Hand, Before I Hang, Black Friday, The Ghost Breakers
The Film: Rebecca
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rebecca is perhaps the most effective ghost story ever filmed to contain strictly metaphorical ghosts, rather than literal ones. Alfred Hitchcock’s American film career began with a bang, as this David O. Selznick-produced psychological thriller proved to be the only Hitchcock film to ever take home Best Picture at the Academy Awards, announcing the British master of suspense’s arrival and intent to change the Hollywood game.
All the characters of Rebecca can be described as haunted, but the nature of that haunting is rarely as we’re initially led to believe. The beautiful, gothic estate of Manderley is the home to aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter, played with the expected sophistication by Laurence Olivier, who we meet reeling after the death of his beloved wife Rebecca. Our viewpoint character, on the other hand, has no name of her own—Joan Fontaine’s big Hollywood break here is as a timid, good-natured young woman who is badly out of her depth when it comes to navigating the social circles and stuffy aristocracy of Manderley, where everyone assumes she will forever lack the grace and refinement necessary to be a “great lady.” Her lack of a name signifies her insignificance in the eyes of everyone at the estate, all of whom remain fixated on the specter of Rebecca, a woman of radiant beauty and seemingly boundless charisma, who seemed to have inspired fanatical devotion from her servants, friends and husband. Fontaine is brilliant as she tries to put on a brave face and endure the scorn of those around her, but her facade quickly begins to crumble as she’s mortified time and again.
The description may sound lacking in horror bonafides on some level, but there is indeed a uniquely creepy aura to Rebecca, well reflected in the film’s opening moments, which begin with a fog-shrouded nighttime drive up the estate’s driveway, accompanied by Fontaine’s hushed, dreamy narration. Like most classic gothic romances or melodramas, there are secrets buried in this great old manor, from the nature of Rebecca’s death to the hidden machinations of the hired help and their associates. The themes of Rebecca were later lifted for low-rent horror flicks like 1958’s The Screaming Skull, but nothing in that overtly “horror” genre entry is half as chilling as this film’s Mrs. Danvers, the stone-faced housekeeper who at one point tries to convince the new Mrs. de Winter to leap to her death from Rebecca’s old bedroom, so intense is her loyalty to her dead mistress. At times, it feels like the whole world is conspiring against Fontaine, engendering great sympathy for her character as she eventually learns to stand up for herself and take control of the estate. We badly want to see her come out on top.
This being a Hitchcock film, though, things are rarely so simple as they first appear. Rebecca bucks convention with a third act that significantly reframes the events we witnessed throughout, rewarding the audience’s careful attention to detail and beefing up the role of Olivier’s husband character just when we think we fully understand the source of his sorrows. Its conclusion is poetical and justified; a beautiful exercise in melodramatic catharsis and gothic romance, the ghost of Rebecca vanquished at last.
1941: The Wolf Man
More remakes and mad doctors are running rampant in 1941, as Karloff continues to put in work (The Devil Commands), but new faces are arriving on the scene as well. The most notable is the ample frame of Lon Chaney Jr., stepping very neatly into the exact sort of roles once tackled by his father, the Man of a Thousand Faces. His starring turn in The Wolf Man is obviously his most high-profile work in 1941, but he simultaneously appears in Man-Made Monster, and would work steadily in horror for the rest of his life. Due to eventual appearances in the sequels of several franchises in the 1940s, Lon Chaney Jr. holds the distinction of being the only person to portray all four of the major Universal monsters: The Wolf Man, Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster.
1941 also gives us a classic comedy fantasy in the form of The Devil and Daniel Webster, which touches on the horror genre thanks to its Faustian elements, along with an early Abbott and Costello feature, Hold That Ghost, which sees the comedy duo inheriting what might be a haunted tavern. It would be seven more years before Abbott and Costello returned to the horror genre for their much better-known rendevouz with Dracula, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, which would serve as an unofficial ending to the era of classic Universal monsters. In 1941, though, we’re still going strong. Not to be forgotten: Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which isn’t always tagged as a “horror film” per se, but is home to some of the era’s most suspenseful scenes—particularly the bit with Cary Grant fetching his wife a terrifyingly lit glass of what may or may not be poisoned milk.
1941 Honorable Mentions: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hold That Ghost, The Face Behind the Mask, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Suspicion
The Film: The Wolf Man
Director: George Waggner
After a handful of very successful Frankenstein sequels, but less than ideal follow-ups to Dracula and The Mummy, what the Universal monsters series really needed in 1941 was some fresh blood. This it got, in the form of the fourth head on its monstrous Mount Rushmore: The Wolf Man. In a time when the monster series was beginning to trend toward broader adventure, comedy or self-parody, The Wolf Man brought things nicely back to basics, in a story that favors suspense, atmosphere and character over comedy or overt displays of production value. The Wolf Man’s first priority was scaring cinema-goers, and by all accounts it did just that, despite having to contend against reports from the front lines of World War II.
Universal had already tackled a werewolf yarn six years earlier in Werewolf of London, but where that creature retained a fair amount of his human features, this time the studio went for broke. The stories regarding Jack Pierce’s makeup and the torture it was to apply to star Lon Chaney Jr. are legendary and apocryphal, with the actor at various times stating that it took up to 10 hours to apply, but that may have simply been his desire to live up to his father’s reputation speaking. The results are iconic, although modern audiences likely expect to see a few things in The Wolf Man that aren’t actually present until its sequels. For instance: One never actually sees a facial transformation of Chaney’s Larry Talbot in the original film—nor do we ever see a shot of the full moon. Both of those things are present in the film’s first follow-up, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
The film is notable for its establishment of Larry Talbot as a particularly pitiable character, by Universal Monster standards. Although this ground had been partially explored by the empathetic Frankenstein’s Monster, who doesn’t understand the world around him, Talbot is actively horrified by the atrocities he commits while rampaging as an unthinking beast, torn between his desire to survive, find a cure and not cause any further harm. As the series goes on, he is repeatedly revived and develops an ultimate goal of finding a permanent death, which is certainly the most nihilistic goal of all the Universal monsters. If the film had come along a few decades later, you’d probably see Wolf Man apparel at Hot Topic.
The production, meanwhile, gets the most out of a reduced budget from the gothic grandeur seen in the likes of Son of Frankenstein, still managing to look like an “A” production for the most part—the last entry in the monster series that can legitimately make that claim. Its forests of gaunt, leaf-stripped trees and fog-wreathed cemeteries still make The Wolf Man seminal Halloween viewing for conjuring that classically spooky vibe. Although none of its sequels can really measure up, and Larry Talbot never receives a stand-alone sequel of his own, it does little to diminish the drum-tight construction of the original.
1942: Cat People
As the 1940s continue and the war heats up in Europe, and America enters the war following Pearl Harbor, the horror genre begins to undergo some of its own changes. The overall volume of horror releases isn’t affected much, at least for now, but the effort and budgets being put into those horror pictures seems to slip, industry wide. There’s never a shortage of horror flicks in the cinema, but many of them are cookie-cutter sequels or rather formulaic rehashes of the same “mad doctor” or “monster on the loose” formulas. The genre is getting a bit more tired, in other words, and the studios are taking a grindhouse approach toward horror films: Make them cheap, and make them in quantity to satisfy the regular consumers. The genre begins to feel like a comfortable distraction from the sober news of what is happening in Europe.
That attitude leads toward the decline of some of the more prominent franchises, such as Universal’s Frankenstein. Three years after the lavishly appointed Son of Frankenstein revived the genre, the studio released The Ghost of Frankenstein, marking the series’ departure from “A” budgets to “B” budgets, as well as the departure of Boris Karloff playing the creature. In his place is the newly minted Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr., but something about the creature’s pouting face just isn’t quite right, if you ask us. The continuity here has grown loose, as there’s no real explanation for why a returning Béla Lugosi (as Ygor) is now alive after his apparent death in the end of Son of Frankenstein, but the film does introduce the important plot device of “brain swapping” that will become important in pretty much every Frankenstein film from here on out. In general, though, Ghost is the series’ first step toward mediocrity, being significantly brighter, less atmospheric and less stylish than its forebears. Still, it’s above-average within the context of 1942.
Other films from this turbulent year include another Mummy sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb, along with monster flicks like Night Monster and The Undying Monster. And as always, there’s Karloff with at least one chiller, like this year’s horror comedy, The Boogie Man Will get You.
1942 Honorable Mentions: The Ghost of Frankenstein, Fingers at the Window, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Boogie Man Will Get You
The Film: Cat People
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cat People is evidence that a work of significant artistic merit can come about even as the result of a mandate to produce potboilers on a budget—which is exactly the conditions that producer Val Lewton was working under at RKO when instructed to produce a series of cheap horror films. Cat People was the first and remains the best known, an unqualified, heavily atmospheric success that is owed in one part to Lewton’s resourcefulness and also to the skillful efforts of director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, whose respective masteries of film noir shadow, lighting and framing illustrate exactly how to produce suspense from the suggestion of supernatural terrors, rather than their literal appearance.
The story of Cat People revolves around Serbian-born fashion illustrator Irena, a coldly detached woman who has lived her life under the certainty of a curse in her lineage, a taint in her bloodline. She believes that she is descended from a race of heathen, devil-worshiping magic users in her native Serbia, and that if she allows herself to express emotions with any sort of intensity, be they sexual passion or righteous anger, that she will lose control and become an animal. Is Irena simply an over-stressed woman, reacting to society’s expectation that someone in her position be demure at all times, rather than “hysterical”? Or do her passions really put the lives of those she loves in danger? In uncertainty lies suspense.
Cat People is one of those rare Hollywood films that often finds its discussion revolving entirely around a producer—in this case, Val Lewton. Although it is true that the film is based on a short story penned by Lewton (The Bagheeta), and that the producer tended to rewrite the screenplays of those films he oversaw, the film also belongs to director Tourneur in equal measure. His moody, claustrophobic use of light and shadow in Cat People presaged many of the techniques that would be used heavily in the film noir genre in the decade to follow, lending weight to scenes that would sound incredibly simple on paper. “A woman walks home late at night, not sure if someone is following her” is a sequence that has appeared in countless thrillers, but rarely so effectively as in Cat People, as Jane Randolph steps in and out of isolated pools of light on abandoned streets, islands of safety against something ephemeral and wild that always seems just out of frame. The sequence is famously broken in the end by the jarring arrival of the so-called “Lewton Bus,” with a sudden discharge of air that is credited by some film historians with birthing the modern “jump scare.” Certainly, the sequence wouldn’t look out of place in almost any modern horror film. The famous pool sequence likewise gets most of its mileage out of the uncanny play between the glittering refraction of light and the superbly unnerving sound design of a big cat’s heavy breathing, rather than anything the audience can physically see. You can feel the influence of this particular scene in the conclusion of a horror film like It Follows, which also makes use of the unique, reflective light conditions of an indoor swimming pool.
For working within such tight parameters, it’s a thing of beauty. In Lewton’s own words, the films he produced at RKO contain only the following: “A love story, three scenes of suggested horror and one of actual violence. Fadeout. It’s all over in 70 minutes.” But he was significantly underplaying the talent of everyone who worked on those pictures, including his own. At a time when American horror films were becoming more formulaic, Lewton and Tourneur were making the absolute most out of their limitations.
1943: I Walked With a Zombie
In terms of sheer volume, these next few years are some of the most prolific in horror history, at least before the advent of home video. It really seems at this point as if Americans were escaping into the movie theater as a way to drown out the battle raging in Europe and Asia, and a lot of the time what they were seeing were horror flicks.
1943 offers a good variety of chillers in a plethora of styles. You’ve got a few straight-up sequels, like the underwhelming Son of Dracula, which saw Lon Chaney Jr. (it’s hard to like him as anything but the Wolf Man) stepping into the role of Dracula’s progeny “Alucard,” a trope subsequently passed down through the decades, all the way to the likes of Castlevania. Likewise, there are remakes here, including a big-budget (and color!) take on Phantom of the Opera, which stars the former Invisible Man, Claude Rains, in the title role of the acid-scarred Phantom. The Seventh Victim is certainly a contender as well, another Val Lewton-produced, RKO noir-chiller with sultry undertones, playing a bit like a primordial version of Rosemary’s Baby.
From a populist standpoint, though, 1943 is perhaps most significant for the birth of the “monster mash” via Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The follow-up to the lower-budget Ghost of Frankenstein is a somewhat unwieldy fusion of a Wolf Man story and a Frankenstein one—the creature is played by Béla Lugosi this time and looks particularly awkward—but much more screen time is spent on the former rather than the latter. Indeed, for the first half of its runtime, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man plays like the closest thing to a straight-up The Wolf Man sequel that Universal would ever produce, and it’s a pretty competent one at that, with classically spooky atmosphere and a sympathetic antagonist in the form of Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot, who just wants to find a way to permanently die this time. Of course, given that title, what audiences really wanted to see was two of screendom’s most famous monsters engage in a titanic battle to the death, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man does deliver, albeit in its closing moments. It’s not exactly Iron Man vs. Captain America, but in a very real way, this film laid the groundwork for pitting valuable pieces of IP against each other within the confines of a “shared universe.” Infinity War and Endgame might never have existed without it.
1943 Honorable Mentions: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Ghost Ship, Son of Dracula, The Seventh Victim, The Leopard Man, Phantom of the Opera
The Film: I Walked With a Zombie
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Val Lewton’s second collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur arguably manages to outdo the more famous Cat People, delivering a dreamy horror story that is astoundingly serious-minded and thoughtful in its examination of the powers of belief, free will, emotional pain, historical subjugation and the sins of our ancestors. It combines the beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Tourneur with a story partially cribbed from the bones of Jane Eyre to create a work that feels entirely unique, suffused with death and mystery. As one character says, looking out at the sea: “That luminous water. It takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies, the glitter of putrescence.”
There had been “zombie” films in the U.S. market as early as 1932’s White Zombie with Béla Lugosi, but they treated the mysticism of the Caribbean as an exotic joke, not to be believed or trifled in by sober, modern white folk. I Walked With a Zombie approaches these belief systems from a very different perspective, not only depicting them with surprising accuracy and dignity, but considering how those beliefs could be co-opted by the white man as one more element of control over the lives of the island inhabitants. Although the setting of the film is a post-slavery island of Saint Sebastian, the film’s constant visual motifs of bondage and servitude never allow the viewer to forget the horrors of their not-so-distant past. From the fact that the town is centered around the figurehead of a former slave ship, to a white doctor’s seemingly well-intentioned use of voodoo traditions to instill modern scientific teaching into the community, the film adopts a waveringly accusatorial tone.
The story revolves around a young nurse named Betsy, who is brought to the island to be the caretaker of a catatonic woman whose illness and potential madness have stripped her of any sense of free will. It contains mystery elements, with several characters giving Betsy very different accounts of how her patient ended up in such a state, while always subtly implying a supernatural world of voodoo gods and Great Powers hiding just under the surface of the island’s society, away from the prying eyes of outsiders. How deep Betsy is willing to immerse herself in that underbelly will depend on just how badly she wants to help her patient … and how badly she wants to impress her handsome employer.
As in Cat People, director Tourneur and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt deliver a gorgeously macabre palette of images despite their small budget. The iconic, bug-eyed zombie visage of the enforcer “Carrefour” is the kind of image that must have haunted the dreams of patrons for years to come, but the lasting power of I Walked With a Zombie are in its quiet, wider shots, like the nightmarish, lanky profile of Carrefour standing stock-straight in a darkened, wind-swept corn field, or Betsy leading her pliable patient through the midnight cane fields, toward the pounding drums of a voodoo ceremony. Truly creepy imagery abounds.
1944: The Uninvited
In 1944, like 1943, volume of horror cinema is once again through the roof—these are serious boom years we’re talking about here, and they would continue unabated until around 1947. This year in particular can boast a solid variety of horror films, which range from Universal monster sequels (The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse send that series out with a whimper) to proto-slashers like The Lodger and multiple horror-adjacent entries in the Basil Rathbone-starring Sherlock Holmes series, The Pearl of Death and The Scarlet Claw. And that’s not even including the psychological thrillers, like Gaslight, or the formative ghost story of The Uninvited. There was a lot to see at the cinema in 1944, if you were a horror fan.
On the Universal side of the spectrum, the most notable effort is House of Frankenstein, which represents both a novel first and a chapter slamming shut on the classic Universal Monsters series. Seeming to sense that individual series such as Frankenstein and Dracula were running out of steam, Universal shrugged its anthropomorphized shoulders and concluded “Maybe people will be more interested if they’re all in the same film.” Thus, audiences were given House of Frankenstein, reuniting Frankenstein’s Monster with his old foe the Wolf Man, along with Dracula, “the hunchback” and “the mad doctor” to round things out. It’s a historically important crossover event, but it can’t help but leave the classic monster-lovers a bit cold, considering how separate the iconic characters are ultimately kept from each other. The film plays like an early experiment in horror anthology, telling first a very short Dracula story (starring John Carradine as Dracula), before spending most of the film on Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man and a comatose Frankenstein’s Monster, who only awakens for the closing moments. It has its moments—notably, the reappearance of Boris Karloff as “Dr. Niemann” rather than the Monster—but it would be the last Universal monster film of any real merit for a number of years.
Gaslight, meanwhile, represents a completely different kind of horror, if you choose to define it as horror. Ingrid Berman plays a woman who returns to the scene of a terrible crime, but can’t shake the sense that something isn’t at all right—feelings that are negated by her suspicious new husband, who insists it’s all in her mind. Featuring scintillating performances and scripting, you know Gaslight has been influential when we still use the term more than 70 years later to describe the very specific form of abuse it depicts.
1944 Honorable Mentions: Gaslight, House of Frankenstein, The Curse of the Cat People, The Lodger, The Pearl of Death, The Scarlet Claw
The Film: The Uninvited
Director: Lewis Allen
As long as horror films have existed in Hollywood, filmmakers have been telling “ghost stories,” but The Uninvited marks a turning point in how the industry approached the genre. It seems rather facile, looking back 75 years from today, to think that the idea of actually having “real ghosts” in a film could be a revelation in and of itself, but The Uninvited’s decision to do so effectively threw a wrench in decades of film convention when it came to depictions of the supposedly supernatural.
In the decades prior, ghosts had appeared in Hollywood features in a bevy of ways—as punchlines, or protagonists, when portrayed by the likes of Cary Grant in Topper, but largely as the work of hoaxters or criminals. Films such as The Cat and the Canary or the previously mentioned Abbott and Costello film Hold That Ghost from 1941 depicted “g-g-g-ghosts” as the work of devious fraudsters not unlike those who would show up decades later as the villains of the week in episodes of Scooby Doo, charlatans who were usually trying to drive the protagonists away in order to secure some kind of financial windfall. It may be that this form of phony ghost was simply deemed less likely to draw challenges from a Christian fundamentalist audience, given that a fake ghost makes no implication about the nature of the afterlife, but despite years of “monster” films, real hauntings were a corner of the supernatural world that Hollywood seemed loathe to touch. The Production Code, and its insistence that no film contain “ridicule of the clergy” or organized religion, no doubt played its part as well.
It was no small thing, then, that The Uninvited tells a tale that incontrovertibly challenges its characters’ deeply held assumptions on the nature of life and death. It’s a gothic tale with allusions to the likes of Jane Eyre and The Fall of the House of Usher, concerning a young woman’s return to the house where her mother died under mysterious circumstances. What she uncovers, in no small part due to the guiding hands of the spirits around her, dredges up long-buried family secrets that challenge the history she’s been led to believe. It’s a structure that would go on to be echoed through ghost stories of latter decades, from The Innocents, to The Others, to Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. Everything we see in The Uninvited is formative.
With that said, it can also make the film seem rather familiar to a modern audience, but such is the experience of watching most classic films that were heavily influential upon entire genres. It is, if nothing else, an always engaging (if seemingly doomed) romance between Ray Milland’s Roderick and Gail Russell’s Stella, which builds to a satisfying climax that reaffirms the unknowable and terrifyingly alien nature of the beyond.
1945: Dead of Night
This is another year of varied, eclectic horror output, with a good number of thrillers, mysteries and dark noir films hanging around the periphery of the horror genre, although there are fewer films that stand out here as particularly notable in a historic sense. Karloff continues to churn out low-budget horror flicks, with both the (pretty decent) The Body Snatcher and the (somewhat less so) Isle of the Dead, while Basil Rathbone continues his Sherlock Holmes run with another horror crossover, in The House of Fear. The Spiral Staircase is a taut thriller that both calls on Old Dark House tropes and presages the format of minimalist Twilight Zone episodes like “The Invaders,” sans the tiny aliens. Finally, this year’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is often considered the superior adaptation of a story that has been adapted numerous times, noted for its Citizen Kane-like deep focus and impressive black-and-white cinematography.
House of Dracula, meanwhile, is a low point for Universal’s classic monster series, rushed into production after House of Frankenstein and once again assembling all of the monsters in one place, without so much as an explanation for how some of them have been resurrected since they perished a year earlier. Shoddy in appearance and cynically calculated as a cash grab for the lowest common denominator, it certainly feels like the time of these monsters being taken seriously has long since passed. The fact that Dracula’s motivation in this outing is to find a cure for his vampirism so he can live a normal life is perfectly indicative of how much the series had lost its way, and the Universal monsters essentially slunk from the cinemas afterward with their tails between their legs, to lick their wounds and hibernate for the next few years.
1945 Honorable Mentions: The Body Snatcher, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Spiral Staircase, House of Dracula, Isle of the Dead
The Film: Dead of Night
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer
The most spectacular thing about Dead of Night, rather than any of its individual stories, is just how neatly and satisfyingly the film’s four directors managed to tie together the connective tissue of their tales via a beautifully executed framing device, at a time when the concept of a “horror anthology” was almost entirely alien. In the decades since, there have been dozens of horror films made using the anthology format, but few have ever looped all of their stories together in a way that made them all feel equally important and ultimately indispensable to the whole. This might be the rare case where the film that did it first, did it best.
Dead of Night was a rarity as soon as it arrived on the scene, given that the U.K. had all but entirely ceased horror film production during the war years, but it went a long way in reenergizing interest in British horror. The framing device follows a nervous architect as he arrives at a small country estate, only to realize that he recognizes every one of the other visitors … from his recurring dreams! All the guests are charmed to some degree by this bizarre coincidence, and begin to share tales of their own apparent encounters with the supernatural, even as the architect slowly becomes certain that a terrible incident is creeping up on them all.
The individual tales vary a bit in effectiveness, as in almost all anthologies, from a light-hearted farce involving a ghostly golfer to a much more atmospheric (and scary) story centered around a mirror possessed by a malevolent spirit. The most famous sequence is justifiably the final one, which revolves around a ventriloquist who may or may not be taking orders from a living dummy—a now stock horror premise that has been repeated in numerous films (and multiple Twilight Zone episodes) in the decades since, although rarely so creepily as it is here. That little doll, “Hugo,” will be in your dreams after a viewing of Dead of Night, we can assure you—particularly after you see what happens to him in the film’s closing moments.
In general, though, this is a film of unusual cleverness for the era, and some sly social commentary to boot, as when a wife opines that “you know how difficult it is choosing presents for a man—they always seem to have everything they want.” Each story grabs the viewer’s attention, but how well they work together only really becomes apparent in the frenzied build to the film’s conclusion, which inverts the story on itself in a way that is thoroughly modern, unexpected and delightful. The last 10 minutes or so of Dead of Night play as if they’d been directed by the likes of Christopher Nolan, cementing its status as one of the most creative horror films of the era. It set a very high bar for future horror anthologies, which only a handful have managed to match.
1946: The Beast with Five Fingers
The horror boom that has been in pretty constant, self-sustaining motion since 1931 (with the exception of 1937-1938) is beginning to wind down here. There are still plenty of options in 1946 to choose from, but this will be the last year with a large horror crop for quite a while—until the mid-1950s, in fact. We’ve got to enjoy the good stuff here while we can—in a few years time, horror is going to become very hard to come by.
1946 is notably home to another classic chiller from producer (and screenwriter, in this case) Val Lewton, which saw his story paired up with none other than the hardest working man in horror, Boris Karloff. Bedlam is a psychological, period piece horror film about a despotic insane asylum director, played by Karloff with just enough aristocratic glee that you manage to both be drawn to the guy and hate his guts. The film isn’t quite so stylishly shot as Lewton’s collaborations with Jacques Tourneur, such as Cat People or I Walked With a Zombie, and it doesn’t really have the budget to make its 1700s setting seem believable and not contrived, but it’s a great excuse to see the master chew some amusingly anachronistic scenery.
The year is also home to some other pop-culture films of note, such as the Bugs Bunny short Hair-Raising Hare, featuring the furry, red, sneakers-wearing monster recognized by decades of children who saw these films in syndication ad nauseum, and two different horror films starring the uniquely disproportionate face of character actor Rondo Hatton. Sadly, Hatton suffered from acromegaly, which caused the ghoulish facial features that made him a Universal horror bit player. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will no doubt remember him from this year’s film, The Brute Man, in which he plays a misunderstood, back-breaking killer known as “The Creeper.” His memory survives on through The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award, an online awards show currently in its 18th year, which awards busts of Hatton’s particularly recognizable head as a sort of macabre Oscar statuette for the horror community.
1946 Honorable Mentions: Bedlam, Hair-Raising Hare, Shock, Strangler of the Swamp, House of Horrors, The Brute Man
The Film: The Beast with Five Fingers
Director: Robert Florey
To look at The Beast with Five Fingers from afar, one might think it was another remake of The Hands of Orlac, but although this film does concern itself with the wickedness that might be contained within man’s most precious digits, it isn’t about a man questioning whether his body (and will) are still his own. Rather, this film is more interested in sensation and shock than psychological winnowing, presenting the possibility of its hand as a disembodied one, returned from the grave to seek revenge on the men and women who cursed its owner to an early end.
One part murder mystery, one part Old Dark House film and one part pre-giallo, The Beast with Five Fingers is a smooth-running and reasonably well-polished thriller. An ensemble cast is gathered to be menaced by the possibility of the severed hand on the loose, but it’s Peter Lorre’s “musicologist” character, Hilary Cummins, who is best remembered. Featuring crisp, deep-focus B&W cinematography that pairs nicely with moody, noir-influenced lighting effects and a creaky Victorian manor house that wouldn’t be out of place in The Cat and the Canary, it’s a blending of horror sub-genres that seem to fit together in natural, organic ways.
Lorre, as expected, is excellent here, imbuing Cummins with his usual combination of guile, sleaziness, paranoia and sleepy-eyed humor. He has a unique way of couching his characters in a neutral space between “despicable” and “wounded and sympathetic” that is on full display here, amplified by the fact that the audience isn’t quite sure if he’s meant to be a figure of suspicion or an unlikely protagonist. Is Lorre our unreliable narrator? Or merely a pawn in some greater mastermind’s game? Constant misdirection keeps the audience guessing through a breezy, 88-minute runtime.
One final note: The “disembodied hand” FX used throughout this film are fairly simple in technique, but perfectly executed. The fact that a Warner Bros. “B” horror picture from the mid-1940s managed the effect so consistently, 50 years before “Thing” was scurrying around as a centerpiece of the first Addams Family movie, is worthy of praise.
1947: The Red House
If 1946 was a notable step down from the high-volume horror releases of the 1940s to date, then 1947 is when the genre truly falls off the map again, to a place it hasn’t been since 1937-1938. This is the beginning of the darkest stretch in genre history, and unfortunately we’re not talking about the dire content of the films themselves.
Why did horror essentially fade into obscurity, just a few years after being one of the most prolific film genres in Hollywood? Many potential causes have been advanced, most notably the idea that film audiences, having now grappled with the horrors of the second world war, splashed across newspapers, magazines and film strips, had become inured to the style of horror found in Universal monster or ubiquitous “mad doctor” films. This might well have been the case, given that horror returned in force looking fairly different in the early 1950s, but it seems equally likely that the studios of the day simply thought the genre’s era of marketability had passed. Films like House of Dracula had shown the lack of vitality remaining in some of the stock characters who had been horror’s surest bets in the preceding years, and there was still the matter of the Production Code to contend with as well.
The result, at least in the U.S., was almost total genre hibernation. You’ll still find some film noir entries here that contain horror elements, and the occasional non-U.S. horror film, like this year’s Uncle Silas/The Inheritance from the U.K., but the pickings here are very slim.
1947 Honorable Mentions: Uncle Silas
The Film: The Red House
Director: Delmer Daves
Is there such a thing as “country noir”? The existence of The Red House begs the question, as Delmer Daves’ film ably captures the visual aesthetic usually found in urban, hard-boiled detective stories and instead transfers it to a patch of isolated farmland in the middle of the American heartland. The results are distinctive, containing some of the fantastical rural elements seen in the likes of The Night of the Hunter, but with an even darker visual aesthetic. The Red House is almost completely suffused in shadows, in a not-so-subtle visual allusion to the pent-up secrets shared by its characters. Suffice to say, there are some serious skeletons in these closets.
The film is about a handicapped farmer and his sister, who live on a remote farmstead with their adoptive daughter, Meg. As Meg grows close to one of the family’s hired hands, Nath, the two stumble onto the existence of a mysterious “red house” that exists somewhere in the recesses of the property owned by her adoptive father. But as the young lovers grow curious about the connection between Meg’s father and the house, events simultaneously conspire from several angles to separate the two.
The great Edward G. Robinson, veteran of numerous noir and gangster films, plays the peg-legged farmer Pete, who comes off first as an object of sympathy, and then possibly a source of malevolence. As the investigation into the “red house” continues, his sanity starts to slip, but is it the result of victimhood, or guilt?
Highlighted by a creepy, anxiety-tinged score from Miklós Rózsa, The Red House plays like a melodrama by day, and a horror film by night. It does an excellent job of teasing the possibility of the supernatural, while never making anything concrete, allowing for several potential interpretations. With a conclusion whose implications are considerably more shocking than one would expect, it makes for an understated, under-seen 1940s psychological thriller.
1948: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
In the midst of the horror genre’s longest overall fallow period, 1948 actually isn’t quite so bad, at least compared to the years that surround it on either side. It can at least claim to be home to several genre movies that have stood the test of time in some way, to the point that they’re easily recalled by those who know film. If only we could say that about the likes of 1950. Alas.
This year is home to a number of noir-ish thrillers that border on the horror genre, which would describe the content of both The Amazing Mr. X and Daughter of Darkness, a more mundane film than the title might have you believe. There are some monster-y fantasies, ‘ala Unknown Island, which features some of the strangest looking dinosaur costumes of the 1940s, but the biggest discussion of “is it horror?” this year revolves around Alfred Hitchcock and Rope.
Rope is one of Hitchcock’s simplest psychological thrillers from a plotting standpoint, but was one of his most complex and challenging to execute behind the camera. The director reportedly considered it a failed experiment, but the film’s esteem has gradually increased over the years, in response to its admittedly impressive (but often very subtle) production design and camera techniques. Edited to appear as a single, continuous shot, and full of numerous long takes of 10 minutes or more, it certainly feels like watching the stage play it was adapted from. The fact that Hitchcock also made Rope his first Technicolor feature only added to his technical challenges. The story concerns a dinner party being held by a pair of brilliant but disturbed young men, who are reveling in the fact that they killed one of their peers earlier that afternoon, just to see if they could get away with the crime. The dinner party is part of the test: Can the two blithely smile and gab their way through the evening, while their victim’s body is hidden in the very same room? What of the pair’s former professor, played by Jimmy Stewart, whose inquiring mind is constantly needling at the guilt showing through their facade? Whether or not you consider it “horror,” Rope is a scintillating, 80-minute thriller.
1948 Honorable Mentions: Rope, The Amazing Mr. X, Daughter of Darkness, Unknown Island
The Film: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Director: Charles Barton
Here we are—the swan song of the Universal Monsters, or at least the “Big Three” of Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man. None of the three had appeared in a feature since the disappointment of 1945’s House of Dracula, but this broad horror-comedy at least gives the characters a serviceable, loving denouement. It’s notable for being the only time since 1931 that Béla Lugosi returned to the role of Dracula in an official capacity, while Lon Chaney Jr. again portrays the Wolf Man (of course). It could have been a truly grand reunion if Karloff was also present, but instead the Monster is portrayed this time by Glenn Strange, who also played the creature in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Still, two out of three ain’t bad, and Strange arguably does a better job as the creature than anyone else other than Karloff.
The film is a typical starring vehicle for Abbott and Costello, which sees the boys roped into a menial job that leads them into an array of dangerous situations. It’s not truly the finest or funniest of the duo’s features—they made more than 30 of them, so it’s hardly surprising—but it’s definitely the best-known Abbott and Costello feature today, thanks to its connection to the Universal Monsters legacy. The fact that it was immediately followed by a series of “Meets” films, ‘ala Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd and Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, speaks to its box office success in its initial release, which went a long way in keeping the duo’s film careers going into the mid-1950s.
The monsters, to their credit, are presented in exactly the same way here as they would be in standalone entries in their own film franchises—they don’t behave differently, or come off as caricatures of themselves, as one might fear. Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, is still a tormented antihero who prays for death. Dracula is still a classical arch-fiend. The Monster is still … unconscious on a table for most of the film, per tradition. They are, as a group, essentially playing a collective, monstrous straight man to the antics of Bud and (especially) Lou, and it works quite smoothly, as if the comic pratfalls that follow have always been part of the genre, rather than a marketing ploy tacked on to familiar characters 16 years later. Sequences like Costello being stalked by the Wolf Man around his hotel room, all while being blissfully unaware of what is happening, still play well today, although the film suffers a bit for its lack of the usual dialog and patter routines for which the duo was most famous.
Ultimately, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein feels very much like the end of an era. It’s a goodbye of sorts to Lugosi, who would fade into relative obscurity (and Ed Wood productions) in the coming decade, and the last time audiences would see characters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster until their glorious rebirth via the British horror revival at Hammer Film Productions in the late 1950s. It’s the bittersweet closing of an iconic chapter in horror history, and a contributing factor in the weakness of the late 1940s and early 1950s for this genre. Perhaps the post-war American audience truly was hankering for a new form of horror—one that would reflect the anxieties of a newly born atomic age.
1949: The Queen of Spades
Another rough year, largely saved only by expanding the “horror” definition a bit, and by the fact that the U.K. was still producing horror-adjacent films at the time. 1949 and 1950 pretty much feel like the nadir of this particular trough, and you can imagine that the horror fans of the early 1940s must have felt a bit distraught, like the genre had simply disappeared on them. Perhaps it felt like all of Hollywood had outgrown “mad doctor” and monster films in this particular moment, but they clearly seem to be quite far from the public eye. Regardless, horror cinema is never less socially relevant than it is in this little stretch.
Nevertheless, there are pockets of significance. This year gave us the animated short film version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from Disney, arguably the best-known adaptation of the tale until Tim Burton took a whack at it in 1999. Although this depiction of Ichabod Crane is a particularly gangly, comical and cartoonish one, the Horseman himself is drawn in an entirely different, far more macabre style, making the final chase sequence something that no doubt inspired the nightmares of countless children who didn’t suspect The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad would be so intense.
Elsewhere, Abbott and Costello tried to cash in on the success of Meet Frankenstein with the first of their “Meet” sequels, but Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff is just the start in a series of swiftly diminishing returns for the duo, with the possible exception of the fairly funny Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. Here, however, despite his prominent billing, Boris Karloff is barely even a major player—a textbook case of a title promising more than it can deliver.
Finally, it’s worth noting that although Mighty Joe Young hardly feels like a legitimate “horror” entry, it’s important as a torch-passing moment from stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O’Brien (of King Kong fame) to protege Ray Harryhausen, who are both credited. Harryhausen would go on to ply his trade in some of the first, influential “atomic monster” films of the 1950s, bringing horror into an important new era in the process.
1949 Honorable Mentions: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Mighty Joe Young, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff
The Film: The Queen of Spades
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades is a little-known, post-war British masterpiece that has largely only been rediscovered within the span of the last decade, after being thought lost for more than 50 years. An impressive baroque drama with supernatural elements, it’s a gorgeously moody character study of a man who is willing to make any transgression if it will bring him wealth and power. Featuring first-rate cinematography, performances, production and sound design, it’s destined to become regarded as a cinema classic in film circles worldwide—once everyone finally sees it. And with boosters that range from Wes Anderson to Martin Scorsese, that shouldn’t take too much longer.
The story is set in 1800s Russia, revolving around a penniless military captain, Suvorin, who is fascinated by the card gambling game Faro … but never participates himself. The captain is a cold, reserved man who displays intense self-control, banking his small paychecks and dreaming of the day when he’ll be able to embrace his hidden sociopathy to “take life by the throat and force it to give me what I want.” He suffers from a severe inferiority complex, holding himself to highly unrealistic standards of achievement and being greatly pained by his inability to possess the luxuries of life. This in turn leads the captain to his sociopathic behavior, feigning friendship with peers before switching instantly to haughty command over those he sees as inferior, once they’re of no more use to him. He studies the cards, meanwhile, hoping that they could somehow be his salvation—if only he knew how to win.
Enter, the Countess Ranevskaya, an ancient woman who is purported to have sold her soul in her youth for the ability to win at cards, making her fortune in the process. Now aged, alone and bitter, she takes out her resentments on her ward, the doe-eyed Lizavetta, who desperately wishes for love and some form of escape. And unfortunately for her, that’s exactly what Captain Suvorin promises to give her, provided he can use the opportunity to learn the Countess’ secret. Thus, a game of deception and extortion is put into practice.
These may not exactly sound like horror bonafides, and indeed, for long stretches The Queen of Spades plays more like a superior costume drama, with excellent performances (especially from Anton Walbrook as Suvorin) and lavish sets and costumes, but things gradually begin to take a more sinister and supernatural turn. From the beginning, these aspects are all hinted at visually, as gorgeous cinematography on sets such as the gambling den throw huge, impressionistic outlines of shadow onto the wall behind specific characters, and even the tertiary players are lit with dramatic, devilish lighting that makes them seem more important and ominous than they really are. The film’s visuals are highly stylized throughout, making use of objects such as well-placed mirrors to reflect the faces of background characters in unusual ways, allowing the audience to see the expressions of people whose backs are turned. Conversations, likewise, are often shot in deep focus, with one character standing far behind the other, but both facing the camera.
It’s the film’s final 20 minutes, though, where it earns its place among the horror classics of the era, as its narrative devolves in strange and hallucinogenic directions, highlighted by impeccable sound design and the return of various sound motifs that are extremely effective. These haunting sequences, as Suvorin faces up to some of the ramifications of his actions, call to mind the delirious passion of Edgar Allan Poe pieces such as “The Raven,” and are quite frankly all the more terrifying for the lack of overt “scares” beforehand. It’s a masterful build toward an extremely satisfying crescendo.
1950: House By the River
Well, we’ve finally reached it—the year that might be the absolute nadir for horror, as far as this century project is concerned. Suffice to say, there’s barely anything for us to choose from here, to the point that one has to ask questions like “Does Sunset Boulevard count as horror?” Great film though Billy Wilder’s picture may be, and suitably disturbing at times, we can’t in good conscience refer to it as a “horror movie.”
Some of the only films that qualify for that kind of distinction in 1950 were produced outside of the U.S. In the U.K., there’s a so-so adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, which preceded the well-regarded American version from Roger Corman that would arrive a decade later. And in Mexico, we have “The Man Without a Face,” El Hombre Sin Rostro, which is a low-budget entry that lands somewhere between film noir and horror-thriller. Other than that? Almost nothing. Horror is at its least culturally relevant here, but the next few years will begin to reclaim it from obscurity via its fusion with a film genre that had come into its own, post-war vogue: Science fiction.
1950 Honorable Mentions: The Fall of the House of Usher, El Hombre Sin Rostro
The Film: House By the River
Director: Fritz Lang
It’s interesting how the silent, German filmography of director Fritz Lang seems to be significantly better known to film geeks these days than his later American output, considering the fact that Lang spent 1936-1960 directing a steady stream of dramas, noirs and thrillers in Hollywood—more than 25 in all. Although we understandably revere the man for his utterly groundbreaking work in foundational, wildly imaginative films such as Metropolis, M and Dr. Mabuse, his American features proved Lang’s ability to change and adapt with the times, grafting his mastery of visual motifs and shadow onto emerging genres as they arrived. He was by no means only a silent era director, and films like House By the River show his American stylings at their best, even if it’s not as well known as noirs such as The Big Heat.
This is a sultry, muggy sort of noir, with elements of stifling Southern Gothic in its darkened manor houses and sweaty browlines. Although it has some of the same “country noir” leanings we mentioned in this series’ entry on 1947’s The Red House, this is less a story about the long-buried sins of rural folks, and more a character profile of a privileged scoundrel’s deceitful attempt to preserve himself at all costs, even if it means throwing his own family to the wolves.
Actor Louis Hayward is a consummate noir slimeball here as Stephen, a diminished novelist whose glory days are behind him, leaving him to putter around the family estate and lust after the hired help. When a drunken outburst leaves the family maid dead at Stephen’s hands, he immediately ropes his good-natured brother into helping dispose of the body, which is dumped into the titular river. But these crimes, of course, can never stay buried for long … and what better fall guy is there than the brother you’ve always resented? Hayward plays the character beautifully, with early scenes establishing his capacity for compassion, just to make his inhumanity toward his own family that much more despicable in the end.
And then, of course, there’s the river itself. Lang’s camera obsesses over the natural features of the river, making its muddy water a character in and of itself. There’s an air of magical realism in the way Lang frames the river as first a willing accomplice and eventually a turncoat traitor in Stephen’s crimes, to the point that you half expect the novelist to rebuke its betrayal. Fish leap out of its waters, seemingly attempt to flee whatever malice is harbored there. The lazy passage of the water is oddly mesmerizing.
All in all, House by the River makes for one of the era’s more underrated, low-budget noirs, benefiting greatly from an increasingly unhinged central performance and the presence of Lang’s always professional direction to achieve a well-defined mood of constant guilt and unease.
1951: The Thing From Another World
After years of dormancy and diminishing returns, the horror genre finds the seeds in 1951 of its resurrection, at least in the U.S.—a partnership with the rapidly evolving science fiction genre. Although 1952 will be another weak crop, before a revival begins in earnest around 1953, this year at least gives us more to talk about than the two that preceded it.
Providing a bridge to the past is the best of the Abbott and Costello “Meet” sequels, Meet the Invisible Man, now playing the character entirely for laughs rather than chills or thrills. It works fine; The Invisible Man was never one of the more frightening Universal Monsters anyway. Nevertheless, it confirms that the era of the frightening gothic monster film seems to have passed—the public has become jaded, and is no longer shocked by the sight of a vampire or werewolf. They want to be menaced by new figures that are relevant to 1950s popular culture, and appearances like Boris Karloff’s in this year’s The Strange Door seem particularly old fashioned.
Films like The Man From Planet X or The Day the Earth Stood Still, on the other hand, reflect the emerging zeitgeist much more clearly, catching the “saucer age” of the U.S. in full bloom, and the sudden national obsession with alien invaders, presented as a not-at-all subtle proxy for Cold War/Soviet tensions. Some of these films, like The Man From Planet X, are easier to slot into the horror genre for the fact that they’re primarily attempting to titillate and frighten an audience, whereas The Day the Earth Stood Still has loftier philosophical and pacifistic aspirations, not unlike those possessed by Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. The Day the Earth Stood Still seems particularly unimpressed with the technological advances of the past decade, with a pessimistic outlook on human nature that assumes we’ll almost certainly destroy ourselves in the end—worries that still seem pretty well founded decades later, even if we managed to avoid an immediate nuclear holocaust after developing The Bomb. The film has such a low opinion of humanity, in fact, that it seems to support the idea of its alien visitors stripping our species of its agency, for our own good, precisely because we can’t be trusted with it.
1951 Honorable Mentions: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Five, The Man From Planet X, The Strange Door
The Film: The Thing From Another World
Director: Christian Nyby
If The Day the Earth Stood Still is distrustful of the inability of humanity’s leaders to avoid an impending conflict that could destroy life as we know it, then The Thing From Another World is more representative of the common man’s deep, paranoiac distrust of his own Cold War neighbor, in much the same manner as Invasion of the Body Snatchers from later in the decade. The fear here isn’t one of inherently corrupted human nature in a new, technological age, but rather that the mysterious Other will infiltrate and destroy us—from without, rather than “within,” in this case. Unlike John Carpenter’s 1982 remake, the “Thing” here doesn’t insidiously imitate or subsume the identities and bodies of those it kills. It’s more like a bridge between the lumbering monsters of 1940s horror cinema and the outer space-inspired killers of the new era, albeit with a new, Communist subtext.
Debate has long raged about who truly directed The Thing From Another World, with some primary sources claiming that producer Howard Hawks was behind the camera on a daily basis, but we should be less concerned about the name receiving top billing and more focused on The Thing as a top-flight work of isolated paranoia and suspense. Its crew of scientists, military suits and journalists, all holed up in a North Pole research station, should by all logic be united in their resistance against an invading force from another world, but instead are divided by aspects of personal interest. The military wishes to destroy the creature, for the sake of national security. The scientists want to communicate, refusing to accept what is pretty clearly a case of hostile intent. And the writer, like so many film journalists, mostly wants to file the “story of a lifetime” for his own, self-aggrandizing ends. Whose response to the presence of a blood-drinking plant alien is most inherently flawed?
Regardless of what side one comes down on, The Thing From Another World is a gripping sci-fi thriller, with effective camera work that plays up the “no escape” isolation of being in a location that is inherently hostile to human life. The sequence where the clustered scientists and military men are backed into a corner by the advancing, backlit Thing as it smashes through the door and stands, highlighted against the arctic cold, is a classic of the genre. The fact that the creature is met with liquid fire (and later an electrical trap) feels like an atom-age update on how the Universal monsters were so often destroyed—by elements of nature, tamed by man’s science, used to drive back that which should not be.
The Thing From Another World launches a grand age of space and alien exploitation at the movies, which will last throughout the decade. From Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and War of the Worlds to Invaders From Mars, It Came From Outer Space or The Blob, the nation had found its latest and greatest bogeyman—and horror was happy for the assist.
1952: The White Reindeer
For the last time in the early 1950s, we have a year with very little horror output—at least from the American film industry, anyway. Even after the arrival of American sci-fi horror films in 1950 and 1951, this year is a serious gap, salvaged only by a collection of diverse horror flicks from outside the U.S.
From Germany we have Mandragore, a film that stoked fears about the ethical ramifications of the scientific breakthrough of artificial insemination, in a tale about a “soulless” woman born as the result of a science experiment gone wrong. The U.K. contributes Ghost Ship, while Finland produces the influential, vampiric horror-fantasy The White Reindeer.
The few low-key films produced in the U.S., meanwhile, feel a bit like they’re clinging to the past. The Black Castle stars Karloff in a gothic romance tale with only mild horror elements, while the farcical Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is exactly as derivative and inessential as that title would make it sound—a film that could easily have been produced in 1942 rather than 1952. All in all, this is a real low point for American-produced horror, but 1953 will be the start of a serious revival.
1952 Honorable Mentions: Beware, My Lovely, Mandragore, Ghost Ship, The Black Castle
The Film: The White Reindeer
Director: Erik Blomberg
Nearly 70 years before Ari Aster’s Midsommar exposed many genre fans to the thought of horrific actions occurring in broad daylight under the unnatural, perpetual glare of the midnight sun, The White Reindeer already contained kernels of the very same idea. Produced in Finland and shot in Lapland, the country’s northernmost point, there’s an authentic element of agoraphobic isolation present in this film that is impossible to fake. It automatically ramps up the tension in every scene, being armed with the knowledge that these people are impossibly distant from any form of help or rescue.
The White Reindeer is a truly fantastical film, whose snowscapes dotted with occasional dead trees make it stand out in beautiful black-and-white contrast. Tonally, it’s an utterly unique hodgepodge of genre influences, teetering between Eastern European fantasy and the noir-inflected American psychological horror films of Val Lewton—especially Cat People, with which this movie shares some serious thematic DNA. It’s the story of a woman named Pirita, played fabulously by Finnish actress Mirjami Kuosmanen, who meets a man and settles down in a remote country homestead. But with her husband often away for long periods, the young wife grows remorsefully lonely, pining for companionship. After visiting a local shaman for a solution to her problem, Pirita finds the results are more than she bargained for, being cursed with a condition that begins leaving the area’s … thirsty … young men as frozen corpses.
What we have here, then, is one part fairytale and one part psychological horror meltdown, leaning heavily on its contrastingly bright and shadowy cinematography and the strength with which Kuosmanen sells her transformation into something more than human. The landscapes, accessible only by ski and sled, give the story an alien air to it, as if these characters are explorers living on the surface of a foreign world, rather than the same planet where throngs of tourists are simultaneously walking down the streets of London or Paris. The unbearably cold bleakness of those frozen landscapes are the film’s signature; imagery it shares with only a few other notable horror films, especially the second portion of horror anthology Kwaidan, “The Woman of the Snow.”
If you’re tired of sampling horror cinema with an overreliance on classical genre tropes, gothic manors or monsters, then The White Reindeer will likely feel like a mystical breath of (frigidly cold) fresh air. It goes a long way toward salvaging 1952, in what is otherwise a notably weak year.
1953: House of Wax
Finally, after nearly a six-year gap since 1947, we have a year where the horror genre feels like it’s been fully reanimated. Via both its fusion with science fiction, and the evolution of classical horror into the Technicolor era—simultaneously an era of brand new gimmicks and styles of presentation—the genre managed to introduce itself to a new generation of filmgoers.
1953 proves to be a highly influential year for a number of sub-genres. In particular, the “giant atomic monster” movie gets its start here in the form of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, featuring the unleashed stop-motion animation talents of Ray Harryhausen. Audiences had been primed for the tale by the 1952 theatrical re-release of King Kong, with special effects from Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien, but The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is notable for the way its rampaging monster, a fictional “Rhedosaurus” dinosaur, is explicitly stated to have been released from polar ice via atom bomb testing. This fascination with nuclear weaponry as an instigating factor or scapegoat would be used to endless length in the creature feature revival of the 1950s, as giant reptiles or insects took on the physical role of embodying the existential fear of an epoch. Many different styles of special effects would be used to bring such creatures to life over the course of the next decade, but few retain the charm of Harryhausen’s intricately detailed models and miniatures.
On the “closer to straight science fiction” front comes this year’s monumental adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, notable for both its expansive budget and groundbreaking FX work, although the quality of its miniatures suffered in subsequent digital transfers, which made sights such as the strings holding up Martian war machines more visible. Regardless, this was an alien invasion story presented in a way that one hadn’t been before: With an “A” budget, recognizable actors and a palpable sense of gravitas, playing more like a war drama than a true horror film. It became the gold standard against which lower-budget entries such as Invaders From Mars would be judged, even though Invaders was rushed into theaters before War of the Worlds to claim the title of the first colorized “flying saucer” film.
1953 is also home to the first major wave of 3D features in cinema history, although aspects of the technology had existed as early as 1922. Bwana Devil, an independent exploitation film about man-eating lions, had proven a surprising success in limited release in 1952, spurring the development of 3D features from major film studios. The first, noir thriller Man in the Dark, arrived this year, only two days before the first color 3D feature from a major studio was released: House of Wax.
1953 Honorable Mentions: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The War of the Worlds, It Came From Outer Space, Invaders From Mars, Scared Stiff, Man in the Dark
The Film: House of Wax
Director: André De Toth
In addition to the already described cross-pollination of the horror genre with science fiction in the early 1950s, the genre simultaneously split off along a different classifiable tangent: A return to classical spookiness, albeit presented with a new attitude of camp and gimmickry. It was as if horror directors of the era were making their films with some acknowledgement that audiences were harder to scare than they once were, and expected some other element of entertainment to get them into their seats. This they often received in the form of ostentatious presentation gimmicks, such as those perfected by producer William Castle in the close of the decade, or from films that latched onto emerging technologies such as the first major craze for 3D features. Visually, House of Wax might be compared to a colorized (and gaudier), 3D riff on the aesthetics of a film as old as Universal’s Phantom of the Opera, but unlike that film, it’s harder to imagine producers genuinely believed audiences would be screaming and fainting in the aisles at the villain’s climactic unmasking. We’re instead leaning on technological novelty this time around, and the wry sense of humor and thespian sophistication that always accompanies the presence of the film’s star: Vincent Price.
The film is a loose remake of the Michael Curtiz-directed, 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum, telling the story of a brilliant wax figure sculptor whose museum of priceless sculptures is burned down by a duplicitous business partner, resulting in the permanent scarring of Price’s naive artist, Henry Jarrod. The unhinged sculptor then returns years later, intent on both revenge and rebuilding his collection of cherished faces … by any means necessary. Things only get worse when he meets a woman who looks just like his lost masterpiece—a thematic callback very much like Karloff’s lost love in The Mummy—and becomes intent on making her a permanent addition to the exhibition. Cue arched eyebrow and equally arch remark.
As for the 3D gimmick, it’s actually fairly unobtrusive toward the film itself—certainly, the film isn’t full of completely shameless exhibitions of the technology, as one would see decades later in something like Friday the 13th Part 3D. Only a few sequences have been obviously (and tackily) sutured to the film for the express intent of showcasing the 3D technology—most amusingly, a paddle ball performer who repeatedly sends his ball on a string careening in the direction of the audience while essentially breaking the fourth wall. It’s guaranteed to get a laugh, when watching House of Wax in any modern screening. Contemporary audiences certainly didn’t care, as the film went on to become the highest-grossing 3D feature until it was eclipsed by 1969’s shamelessly softcore The Stewardesses.
Despite being a technological milestone, though, House of Wax was ultimately far more influential in the sense that it was Price’s first big starring role within the horror genre—a stepping stone that helped create a horror icon, decades into a career that had been typified largely by dramatic performances. Contrary to popular belief, Price wouldn’t immediately be typecast as a constant horror leading man following House of Wax, as he continued to appear in a variety of films until the end of the decade and his subsequent run of films with William Castle and Roger Corman, which included everything from The Fly and The Tingler to House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death. To anyone who was watching, though House of Wax hinted at numerous classic performances to come—especially the revenge-seeking Price characters seen in films such as Theatre of Blood or The Abominable Dr. Phibes. When it came to grandiose revenge, nobody did it quite like Vincent Price.
The intermingling of horror and science fiction cinema is in full swing here in 1954, as the two genres combine to create some of the features we think of as being most indelibly tied to the imagery of “1950s monster movies.” The most prominent and long-lasting in its appeal and impact is of course Godzilla, given that it’s been receiving sequels for more than 65 years now, including 2019’s King of the Monsters. It’s hard to overstate what a persistent and foundational presence Godzilla has been in both Japanese and American pop culture, informing on some level every other representation of giant monsters in the years that followed.
In the moment, however, there’s little doubt that in the American market, the most immediately influential horror film of the year was Them! This tale of radioactive, giant ants laid the foundation for so many of the “big bug” and “radioactive monster” films that quickly followed that it was practically a complete template for every subsequent offering, from The Deadly Mantis to The Black Scorpion, The Giant Gila Monster and Empire of the Ants. These films weren’t exactly delicate in their nuclear age paranoia, and were less than scientific in their depiction of the effect of radiation on living tissue, but when you really get down to it, there’s nothing here any less realistic than the content of comparable, modern B movies like Birdemic or Geostorm. In any era, there will be audience members who would prefer to be titillated by the fantastically anthropomorphized worst case scenarios of current pop cultural fears, like giant monsters, rather than grapple with the reality of how things like nuclear proliferation or climate change might genuinely mean mankind’s destruction. In 1954, it was simply easier to dismiss a giant ant puppet than it was to dismiss the reality of Kruschev amassing an ever-growing nuclear arsenal. As ever, movies represented a brief respite from such harsh truths.
Other notables from 1954 include Alfred Hitchcock’s relentlessly entertaining, single-location thriller Rear Window, which is certainly horror adjacent but difficult to give the top spot in any kind of proper horror count-down; Gog, which set plenty of the tropes for future “killer robots on the loose” movies such as Chopping Mall; and Creature From the Black Lagoon, the oft-forgotten last proper entry in the original Universal Monsters cycle, filmed in 3D but largely presented in 2D thanks to the gimmick’s popularity fading into obscurity relatively quickly. Although the titular Creature, also referred to as “Gill-Man,” is typically counted among the earlier Universal Monsters, the film itself feels like something of an outlier—a would-be science fiction horror film with hints of an ecological message, hampered by dated tone and structure that feel straight out of the early 1940s. Thanks to the sight of the radiant Julie Adams in her iconic white bathing suit, though, the film has managed to retain a certain vivid place in the collective memories of those who came of age in the 1950s.
1954 Honorable Mentions: Rear Window, Them!, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Gog, Target Earth, The Witch
The Film: Godzilla
Director: Ishirô Honda
Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla is one of the more unusual films to ever kick-start a franchise that has persisted for more than half a century, precisely because the franchise that was spawned from the film has so little in common, for the most part, with the original outing. When members of the American public hear the word “Godzilla” today, they think in terms of colorful kaiju battles, explosions, gaudy FX and silly rubber suits. That’s not Honda’s Godzilla—or as we should probably say, Gojira. His was a film with bleak, apocalyptic overtones; a meditation on the omnipresent anxiety his nation was experiencing, an inescapable awareness of mortality for the entire human race. You would not have walked out of a Japanese theater in 1954, thinking that the monster known as Godzilla would end up portrayed as a protector of the Earth—that’s a modern reclamation of how a technological discovery like nuclear power can be made to serve man, rather than destroy him. More likely, you would have seen Godzilla for what he was: An anthropomorphized figurehead of our swiftly approaching demise. And it would probably have scared the hell out of you.
As such, Godzilla truly is a genuinely spooky film at times—the only entry in the series, with the possible exception of 2016’s Shin Godzilla, that actually plays something like a horror film. One must keep in mind that it was released a mere 10 years after the first atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the blink of an eye. The nation had barely come to any terms with the civilian slaughter that ended the second world war, much less dealt with those feelings via the allegory of film. It all spills onto the screen in Godzilla, though, from the shots of bloodied civilians lying dead on their backs in the rubble to the cries of the wounded as they lay in overcrowded hospital hallways with no one to help them. These are the types of events that can be assumed to occur in any Godzilla film, but later entries in the series rarely have any interest in depicting that sort of human toll. It’s hard to focus on the petty thrills of kaiju combat, after all, when you’re considering how many innocent souls have been wiped out in each building that crumbles to dust.
The film’s human protagonists, likewise, are faced with the responsibility of making decisions that those citizens of Japan were denied in the war. The noble Dr. Serizawa resists all initial efforts to cajole him into using his newly discovered “Oxygen Destroyer” to combat Godzilla, believing that the effectiveness of such a device will only spur the creation of new and more terrifying weapons. He chooses to make the ultimate sacrifice, destroying his knowledge along with his life, to both protect his nation from the threat of Godzilla and ensure that no one else follows his own dark path to an apocalyptic conclusion.
If there’s one sequence in Godzilla that truly captures the mournful vibe, it’s the choir of young schoolgirls singing composer Akira Ifukube’s haunting “Prayer For Peace,” which infuses all the shots it overlays with an incredibly powerful, sobering feeling of gravitas. It confirms aurally that Godzilla, like so many other horror films, is ultimately about psychological trauma and the hope for healing and redemption, even if mankind as a species rarely deserves it.
1955: The Night of the Hunter
The film industry’s horror output has definitely improved for the better by the time we reach 1955, a year that is toplined by two classics that could easily headline almost any year of this list—provided you categorize either as horror, of course. The Night of the Hunter is a grim American fairy tale with ethereal cinematography, grossly misunderstood in its initial release, while Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques is a pitch-perfect, pulpy murder mystery that presaged the coming era of giallo and slasher films in many ways. We ultimately chose Night of the Hunter, but here’s some additional words on Les Diaboliques, which you should absolutely watch, from Paste’s own Dom Sinacola:
Watching Les Diaboliques through the lens of the modern horror film, especially the slasher flick—replete with un-killable villain (check); ever-looming jump scares (check); and a “final girl” of sorts (check?)—one would not have to squint too hard to see a new genre coming into being. You could even make a case for Clouzot’s canonization in horror, but to take the film on only those terms would miss just how masterfully the iconic French director could wield tension. Nothing about Les Diaboliques dips into the scummy waters of cheap thrills.
The rest of the year feels extremely “1950s” in its output, as it probably should: We’re smack in the middle of the decade. Giant monster movies like Tarantula are running amok, with more excellent Harryhausen stop-motion animation in It Came From Beneath the Sea, in which a giant octopus at one point destroys the Golden Gate Bridge. Additional sci-fi horror films from this year include The Quatermass Xperiment, which is considered the birth of the British horror revival at Hammer Film Productions, and the lush but cheesy This Island Earth, which would go on to be the main course featured in the theatrically released MST3K: The Movie, 41 years later.
Beyond that, there’s still a plethora of others one could mention, from Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy to Universal’s Revenge of the Creature and the first Godzilla sequel, Godzilla Raids Again. Truly, it feels good to put the lean years of the late 1940s and early 1950s behind us.
1955 Honorable Mentions: Diabolique, Tarantula, It Came From Beneath the Sea, The Quatermass Xperiment, Dementia, This Island Earth
The Film: The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton
When Charles Laughton passed away in 1962, following an Academy Award-decorated career as one of Hollywood’s more recognizable and respected performers, it was sadly under the impression that his sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter, had been some kind of failure. For a film that is now often cited as one of the best of the 1950s, or even the very best that the decade has to offer, it’s fascinating to puzzle over how the contemporary critical reaction could have been so cool. Film writers of the day looked at the movie and called it old-fashioned, or stilted. They seemed unimpressed by the evocative, dreamy cinematography of Stanley Cortez, or the icily seductive performance of Robert Mitchum, in the role of a lifetime. Somehow, The Night of the Hunter instead became one of those movies cited as an influence by a cadre of up-and-coming auteurs in the New Hollywood generation, and its stock rose with the fortunes of its disciples.
Adapted from the 1953 David Grubb novel of the same name, The Night of the Hunter is a brooding thriller with elements of Southern Gothic and expressionistic horror. Calling upon works by directors such as Paul Leni and F.W. Murnau for inspiration, Laughton imagined West Virginia as a silent, wide-open (but shadow-stalked) place of fantastical beauty and hidden peril for the innocent. The story plays like an adult fairy tale: A family with two young children is menaced by an imposter who joins the community under a pretense, looking for a hidden treasure. Only the kids can see through his murderous intent, but will they be able to convince anyone of what’s happening right under their noses before it’s too late?
Mitchum’s performance here, as the magnetic and sonorous “Rev.” Harry Powell, ranks among the all-time great film antagonists. Powell is the male equivalent of a “black widow,” moving in with lonely women to bleed them dry and eventually leave bodies behind in his wake. Ending up in jail for an unrelated crime, he becomes aware that his cellmate, who is sentenced to death, left behind the score of a bank heist, with only his children knowing its location. What’s left for Powell, after his release, but to cozy up to another widow? This he does with honey-dripping flattery, always with icy-cold intention in the back of his eyes, regarding this woman and her children as tools to be used and discarded as soon as possible. Powell carries himself like a man without a care in the world, whistling mirthlessly wherever he goes. He acts as if he genuinely believes that God approves of his actions, and we pray that he must be mistaken—because if he’s not, we’re all in trouble.
Visually, the film is both beautiful and distinctive, with scenescapes of the West Virginia countryside that evoke the wild, dangerous wildernesses of folk tales by the Brothers Grimm and the folksy, rural ramblings of Mark Twain at the same time. Danger pools in the shadows of overgrown hedges and trees. Sunlight filters down through the shimmering water of a river and the gently waving hair of a submerged corpse, still in her nightgown. It all feels like a dream you’ll struggle to piece together the next morning, only to have it slip away a little more, the harder you concentrate.
There’s no other film with quite the same feel as The Night of the Hunter. It remains an American classic; one that now receives, more or less, the esteem that it always deserved.
1956: The Bad Seed
1956 is perhaps a touch weaker than the years that surround it, where we wouldn’t bother putting the likes of The Creature Walks Among Us into the list of honorable mentions, but thanks to a handful of classics it’s still a fairly strong year overall.
Yet another adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame graced the silver screen this year, this time starring Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo, but it’s less consequential than either the Charles Laughton or Lon Chaney versions of the same story. More accurately capturing the current zeitgeist is Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which borrows the motifs of The War of the Worlds but capitalizes on the real life saucer craze of the era, brought to life through Ray Harryhausen’s state-of-the-art effects. The film contains numerous stop-motion FX shots that are now classics, especially the entire UFO attack on Washington D.C., which includes the sight of a crashing saucer smashing its way through the Washington Monument, which splinters like a toothpick. Harryhausen’s designs for the saucers themselves would become genre staples in their own right, as the static central cabin and rotating outer disc were often used as shorthand descriptions for a “typical” UFO, themselves symbols of 1950s science fiction.
It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though, that stands as 1956’s other gem. Don Siegel’s film is the first of several adaptations of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, and although it lacks some of the more stomach-churningly weird sights of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake (like that man-faced dog!), it makes up for it with solid performances and its uniquely bright, complacent portrayal of human society being destroyed from within. As so many others have observed since the film’s first release, it’s the ultimate Red Scare-era parable for the coming conflict of East vs. West, emotionless collectivist vs. passionate individualist cultures, tapping into the simmering fear that the nation’s very identity was being secretly undermined by outsiders. The fact that the assimilations and “pod people” creations happen while we sleep only deepens the metaphor, implying the need for constant, ceaseless vigilance. Of course, these themes have kept Invasion of the Body Snatchers painfully relevant at any time in American history when xenophobia is running rampant, today being no exception. Embroiled as we are in another culture war revolving around oft-racist accusations of “un-American” behavior, there’s never been a better time to revisit the film than right now.
1956 Honorable Mentions: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rodan, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Creature Walks Among Us, X the Unknown
The Film: The Bad Seed
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
If Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the ultimate Cold War parable, then The Bad Seed is the ultimate cinematic argument in favor of “nature” over “nurture,” when it comes to the root of pure psychopathy. There have been a lot of evil little kids in the history of American horror cinema, but few as chilling self-righteous about their superiority as little Rhoda.
That’s arguably the most unsettling thing about 8-year-old Rhoda Penmark: She has no easily understandable reason for being the way she is, no excuse for the audience to fall back on in attempting to rationalize her behavior. She isn’t the victim of some form of serial abuse. She has two loving parents, although father Kenneth is absent due to his military duties. She has a comfortable upbringing, and is never implied to be the victim of discrimination or bullying. Rather, Rhoda is the bully, for no other reason than the fact that she’s determined she can get away with it. Does it make her character arguably less complex than one who has been shaped by a tragic past or corrupted by negative influences? Perhaps, but having no obvious impetus for her behavior also makes Rhoda that much more frightening. It implies the possibility of every parent’s worst fear: What if your kid is born wrong on the inside, and there’s literally nothing you can do about it? It presages the same painful realizations Tilda Swinton has to suffer through in We Need to Talk About Kevin, more than 50 years later.
That very scenario makes Nancy Kelly’s performance as Rhoda’s mother, Christine, powerfully sympathetic, with a bitter air of hopelessness. She’s reminiscent of Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist, trying to hold a family together as the unsettling clues start building up, looking likely to crack under the strain at any moment. You don’t blame her for being desperate, so desperate, to believe every one of Rhoda’s excuses and rationalizations. After all, everyone else does. In fact, one gets the sense that even more than the dark stain within Rhoda’s soul, Christine fears the inevitability of how impossible it will be to convince others of what she slowly comes to realize about her daughter. She fears being labeled as an unfit mother for daring to show anything other than unconditional love at all times.
And Rhoda, psychopath that she is, capitalizes on these opportunities. Actress Patty McCormack is terrifying in The Bad Seed as the little hellion, who switches so casually between sweet flattery, faux sincerity and cruel displays of power. She has the supreme egomania of someone who regards all the other people around her as non-humans—in her mind, they aren’t individuals, they’re merely the herd. This she displays with startling maturity, possessing the depth of sophistication necessary to both understand social dynamics but operate completely outside of them. She understands precisely what it would mean to be detected, and to see that cunning in the eyes of an 8-year-old, it’s hard to look at any child the same way again.
1957: The Incredible Shrinking Man
We’ve entered the late 1950s, and the total volume of horror films being produced has gone into overdrive. The sci-fi/horror crossover is still going strong, with wave after wave of (rather cookie-cutter) giant monster movies such as The Deadly Mantis, The Amazing Colossal Man (more MST3K alums) and The Giant Claw, but this year also sees one of the pinnacles of the genre in the form of The Incredible Shrinking Man. Indeed, this era represents one of the peaks for science fiction as a populist film genre in general, coinciding as it did with the launch of the Sputnik satellite and the start of the space race.
At the same time, though, a noticeable evolution is making its presence felt in the horror genre: The rebirth of classical gothic horror, after a period of dormancy. You can see it in the film titles this year, which feature (around the globe) multiple vampire films, multiple “Frankenstein” films and I Was a Teenage Werewolf, to boot. Something is in the water, and the archetypes established via the Universal monsters are starting to come back into vogue.
Chief among the revivalists is a company whose name will appear steadily in these entries for the next decade, and then some: Britain’s Hammer Film Productions. Beginning with this year’s Curse of Frankenstein, the company would launch a gloriously colorized series of classical, gothic monster movies, reawakening old terrors associated with characters such as Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, mummies and werewolves, now presented in the lurid new tones of Eastmancolor, where pulses of bright arterial blood became the gruesome new standard. Benefitting from atmospheric set pieces and stylish direction by the likes of Terence Fisher, the newly christened concept of “Hammer Horror” would launch a new wave of imitators throughout Europe (especially Italy) and the U.S.A., proving that the horror genre didn’t necessarily need to lean on science fiction in order to be successful.
It was The Curse of Frankenstein that led the way, a film that was very difficult to keep out of the top spot for 1957—but fear not, as Hammer will be well represented in subsequent years. Starring the duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who would become the two faces most associated with Hammer Horror productions, the film reevaluates the legacy of Universal’s Frankenstein films by cleverly shifting its focus away from the monster and onto the doctor himself. Whereas the Universal Dr. Frankenstein portrayed by Colin Clive, or his sons portrayed by Basil Rathbone and Cedric Hardwicke are all characterized as well-intentioned scientists who get swept up in the heady thrill of discovery and don’t realize their faults until it’s too late, Cushing’s Frankenstein is an imperious cad, through and through. A brilliant but egotistical rake, this Frankenstein doesn’t hesitate to resort to dirty tactics or outright murder to get what he wants, believing that the importance of his prospective discoveries will mean that the ends will justify whatever means he chooses to employ. In order to bring his creation to life, he’ll put friends and family into danger time and time again, making it clear that although Lee’s monster is hideous to behold, it’s clearly Dr. Frankenstein who is the film’s villain—traits that would be inherited by other film characters such as Re-Animator’s Herbert West, some 30 years later. The film would go on to inspire a bevy of sequels, in which Dr. Frankenstein gradually becomes something of an anti-hero, descending ever deeper into his desperation to perfect his scientific breakthrough.
1957 Honorable Mentions: The Curse of Frankenstein, Night of the Demon, Quatermass 2, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Deadly Mantis, Lust of the Vampire, The Amazing Colossal Man
The Film: The Incredible Shrinking Man
Director: Jack Arnold
A pinnacle achievement in 1950s special effects and the concept of the science fiction horror-thriller in general, The Incredible Shrinking Man was the magnum opus of director Jack Arnold, who largely produced workmanlike science fiction films throughout the decade, such as It Came From Outer Space or Tarantula, although he also directed Universal’s Creature From the Black Lagoon. It’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, though, that stands the test of time as the most pure (and still quite entertaining) expression of the era’s populist science fiction tropes.
Our protagonist is Scott Carey (Grant Williams), an average, red-blooded American male on vacation with his wife when a chance exposure to radioactive materials (curse you, decaying nuclei!) begins a barely perceptible shrinking process. At first, it’s almost as if Scott is being gaslighted by the whole world, being told repeatedly that he’s never been 6’1’’, and must always have been 5’11’’—his insistence that he knows what he’s talking about seems reflective of the governmental paranoia of the age, as the citizenry was repeatedly being instructed by their own leaders to look away from the very real, daily threat of thermonuclear obliteration. Of course, the scientists can only give Scott the runaround for so long, though—eventually it becomes clear that Scott is indeed slowly shrinking, making his case into national tabloid news, and fracturing his relationships in the process. There are some nice visual illustrations of the crumbling marriage; in particular the scene where Scott’s wedding ring slips off with a clang, his hand having grown too small to support it. Scott responds with manic swings between cruel bitterness, suicidal ideation and desperate, unrealistic hope for divine scientific intervention. But as time passes, the thought of rescue slips further and further into fantasy, and Scott’s daily challenges begin to become more and more dangerous.
At a tidy 81 minutes, The Incredible Shrinking Man is an uncomplicated, high-concept story that cuts to the chase with immediacy. But for the nuclear-age flavoring, it’s a story that easily could have sprung from the pages of Lovecraft-era Weird Tales or Amazing Stories magazines, or the men’s magazines of the day, which so delighted in tales of man vs. beast in the remote wilderness of savage places. This film, on the other hand, simply transplants that story to the confines of an American household, subbing in a housecat for lions, or a monstrous, giant spider for some red-mawed beast faced in the depths of the jungle. It’s a simple but effective way of making the audience consider the nature of perspective, and how any given situation is often more subjective than we make it out to be—it just depends on your point of view. As a six foot man, a house cat is a loving little creature that depends on you for its every need. As a six inch man, it’s an alpha predator with every intention of first playing with you before it ends your suffering.
Many films had done “miniature person” FX before The Incredible Shrinking Man, but this one fully commits to the gimmick, and the results are quite impressive, if not always entirely consistent. You have to chuckle about some of the logistics—where are they getting these perfectly functional, doll-sized clothing, couches, beds and coffee tables? Why does a coffee cup look like a huge soup bowl in the hands of Scott, when he’s still supposed to be three feet tall? Once his shrinking has reduced him to the size of an insect, though, and he becomes trapped in the house’s cellar, that’s when Scott’s world becomes truly nightmarish—an alien landscape that he must thrillingly navigate through sheer ingenuity and derring-do. Simply watching him attempt to scale a shelf is a wonderfully suspenseful sequence, knowing that any slip-up could cost him his life.
Ultimately, The Incredible Shrinking Man makes for excellent populist entertainment, with some last-minute waxing philosophical, in the tradition of most sci-fi of the era. It’s mostly silliness, but the final lines are unexpectedly profound, ranking up there with The Thing From Another World’s “Keep watching the skies!” As Scott concludes, no longer afraid of the unknown as he continues to shrink into a new sub-atomic world: “Even smaller than the smallest; I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!”
1958: Horror of Dracula
After Hammer Film Productions lit the fuse of the gothic horror revival with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, 1958 is the year when the genre really explodes once again, and the new wave of imitators surpasses even the sci-fi horror films of the day, which are still going strong. Keynoted by Terence Fisher’s sumptuous Horror of Dracula, the horror genre has arguably its strongest overall year of the 1950s.
On the sci-fi side of the spectrum, we have a number of classics both major and minor, from the surprisingly gory killer brains of Fiend Without a Face to low budget drive-in cheese fests such as the similarly titled I Married a Monster From Outer Space and It! The Terror From Beyond Space. More influential on the pop cultural consciousness are two films that would both inspire gorier 1980s remakes: The Fly and The Blob.
Of the two, it’s the original version of The Fly that holds up better to modern viewing. Playing essentially like a suspenseful murder mystery with science fiction elements, it reintroduced horror audiences to Vincent Price after 1953’s House of Wax. This would be the launching pad for two decades of consistent horror performances from Price, which would see the actor collaborate heavily with budget-minded horror auteurs such as William Castle and Roger Corman. Here, though, he’s playing his role with considerably less puckishness than he’ll soon be displaying in the likes of House on Haunted Hill or The Tingler.
The year is also home to the first of Hammer’s Frankenstein sequels, The Revenge of Frankenstein, in which Peter Cushing’s doctor is secretly whisked away from the guillotine so he can continue his research in brain transplantation. This time, he actually succeeds at transplanting the brain of his hunchbacked assistant into a new, unblemished body … or so it appears. Complications unsurprisingly ensue, as Frankenstein’s life is put in danger by members of the community slowly realizing his identity, even as the new “monster” begins to deteriorate mentally and physically. It all ends with some truly inspired brain-swapping lunacy, but remains essential for the magnetic performance of Cushing, who is at his best here. It’s the first of several Frankenstein sequels that are nearly on par with the original, largely thanks to the antihero charisma of Hammer’s most important star.
1958 Honorable Mentions: The Fly, The Revenge of Frankenstein, I Bury the Living, Lake of the Dead, Fiend Without a Face, The Blob, I Married a Monster From Outer Space
The Film: Horror of Dracula
Director: Terence Fisher
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee represented the two godfathers of Hammer Horror, and were paired up in many Hammer films—and again in productions by competing British studio Amicus, or independent films such as Horror Express—but it’s Horror of Dracula where the two have their most iconic confrontation. This is not a complex story; it’s an elemental one. Hammer’s revival of the vampire mythos trades in well-worn tropes of good vs. evil and the vampire lore established by decades of films and folk tales to this point, but it elevated those tropes to new heights through the use of sumptuous production design, vivid color, charismatic performances and professional direction.
Looking at these films from a modern perspective, it’s easy to lose sight of the novelty that was present in the gush of red tempera paint that springs forth from a stake driven into the chest of an undead blood-sucker, but to the audiences of 1958 London, New York or Los Angeles, it was a sight they’d literally never had a chance to see on the big screen. The bloodletting of both Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula ushered in a new era of cinematic violence, establishing new boundaries of good taste and what one could get past the censors. And that’s not even mentioning the increasingly plunging necklines that would follow shortly in the wake of so much Eastmancolor blood.
That blood, of course, was only a single element of Hammer Horror’s formula in films such as Horror of Dracula. Their budgets were by no means particularly muscular, but they made the most of what they had, with ornate-looking gothic manor sets, detailed period clothing and the requisite crumbling graveyards and sinister fogbanks. Terence Fisher’s lively direction was likewise a dependable element that helped launch each of the primary monster series, from Curse of Frankenstein to Horror of Dracula, The Mummy and The Curse of the Werewolf. His name emblazoned on each film helped project a sense of gravitas to these projects that is often missing in the horror genre.
And then, of course, there’s Lee himself, masterfully inhabiting the role that would define much of his career, to the actor’s own chagrin. His Dracula is an entirely different beast from the suave, exotic presence of Béla Lugosi in the 1931 Universal original, defined much more by his physicality rather than his charm. This isn’t to say that Lee’s Dracula lacks personality; rather, he radiates a sheer force of ironclad will to compel obedience, rather than achieving his means through faux romantic overtures or flowery dialog. The actor’s unusual height only adds to this Dracula’s commanding presence—he’s a largely silent puppetmaster, with a feral, bestial dark side that is only brought out in times of great duress. Believe it or not, he was the first on-screen vampire to be depicted with fangs, and it’s a completely fitting characterization, as are the crazed, bloodshot eyes. Lee’s Dracula often looks entirely out of his mind, and that only makes him a more terrifying spectacle.
1959: House on Haunted Hill
1959 is one of those years that offers a little bit of everything, but doesn’t really own anything you’d call a masterpiece of the genre. It’s home to everything from sci-fi, spacefaring horror to the launch of new Hammer gothic horror series, to the rebirth of the American “Old Dark House” genre—some for all tastes. It’s noteworthy in particular for the prominence of two names that will be common in the low-budget horror circles for the next several decades: William Castle and Roger Corman. The first is the genre’s consummate showman and snake oil salesman, while the latter is its most consistently successful promoter, producer and discoverer of young talent. Together, the two would shape the image of American horror cinema for the next decade and beyond.
On the sci-fi side of the spectrum, it feels like the well might be starting to dry up a bit—it’s no coincidence that a late-to-the-party Ed Wood is now releasing his infamous film Plan 9 From Outer Space, exploring territory that has been thoroughly covered throughout this decade. Still, there are a lot of horror stories here that are themed around science, including Return of the Fly and Castle’s The Tingler—still famous today for its classic fourth wall-breaking sequence, in which Price implores the audience members to “scream for your lives!” because “the Tingler is loose in this theater!” Castle, with his love of gimmickry, even had certain theater seats installed with buzzers/vibrating devices, in order to make unsuspecting viewers believe they were feeling the “tingling” attack of the titular creature.
It’s another strong year for Hammer’s gruesome twosome as well, as the duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star together in two very different, Terence Fisher-directed films: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy. The former sees Cushing assuming the mantle of Sherlock Holmes that had been associated heavily with Basil Rathbone since the 1940s, with Lee playing a protagonist for once in the form of Sir Henry Baskerville. Cushing’s aquiline features, whip-smart delivery and impish humor make him well suited for the role of Holmes, and the film is often considered one of the very best feature adaptations of an Arthur Conan Doyle novel. In The Mummy, on the other hand, Cushing is playing a somewhat snooty archaeologist, who runs afoul of a vengeful Egyptian antagonist who wants payback on the excavators for their careers of profiteering off his nation’s history in the name of science. It’s actually a pretty relatable grievance, except for the fact that his solution to the problem is to unleash the undead mummy Kharis, played by—of course—Christopher Lee. As such, Hammer’s The Mummy has a bit more in common with the schlocky Universal Mummy sequels than Karloff’s touching, doomed love story from 1932, although it does replicate the “reincarnated bride” aspect to a lesser degree. It gets by, like so many other Hammer films of the period, on its performances and lush production design.
1959 Honorable Mentions: The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Tingler, The Mummy, The Ghost of Yotsuya, A Bucket of Blood, The Bat, Plan 9 From Outer Space
The Film: House on Haunted Hill
Director: William Castle
Aside from the gimmick that the ever-shameless William Castle titled “Emergo,” which consisted of a skeleton on a string flying over live theater audiences, there wasn’t anything particularly novel about House on Haunted Hill when it was released in 1959. In fact, pretty much everything in the film was already a throwback to the golden era of Old Dark House mysteries, from its classically spooky set-dressings to its crew of strangers boarded up in a purportedly haunted house for the night. Truth be told, it’s really not a very “scary” film, nor was it trying particularly hard to be one. What it is instead is an incredibly entertaining ghost yarn; a charming amalgam of familiar elements that have been buffed up and given a new shine and the benefit of some outstanding performances. It plays like a horror genre “greatest hits” album.
Vincent Price, of course, is the straw that stirs the drink. He’s playing eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren, who invites five seeming strangers to an allegedly haunted house in honor of his icily cold wife, who he quite clearly despises. The poor souls who walk through the house’s doors have immediately stepped into a minefield of matrimonial combat; a 4D chess match that is played out via numerous plots and double-crosses. And then, of course, there’s the manner of the house’s restless spirits …
Price, suffice to say, is fabulous, and much of the way the actor is depicted in pop culture comes as a pantomime of his performance here. Every line is delivered with supreme sardonicism, from a man who seems to both resent his station on Earth and relish each small way he’s able to make his guests feel uncomfortable. He’s in full-on mastermind mode, and it’s a joy to watch him work, playing up the campiness of his dialog and the scenario while still retaining an ineffable degree of cool.
The house itself, likewise, feels like a primary character, resonant with the trappings of decades of haunted house tales. Cobwebs crust seemingly every corner. Chandeliers come crashing down where someone was standing moments before. Secret passages connect one room to another. Clawed hands emerge from around a corner to swipe at the lovely Carolyn Craig, who screams her head off with particular gusto. There’s very little internal logic for how any of it is pulled off, given the eventual explanation, but the audience has enjoyed themselves far too much to care. That’s just the sort of film it is.
Given that lighthearted attitude, this is also one of the few times we’ll actively recommend seeking out the colorized re-release of a film that was originally released in black-and-white. The color version of House on Haunted Hill makes for an even more cheesily novel experience, as it casts its characters in unrealistically bright primary hues, visually sorting them like the various player pieces from the board game Clue. Throw that version of the film on in the background of a Halloween party, and all will seem right with the world.
As a new decade dawns, the horror genre is graced with one of its most monumental years, in terms of both quality and quantity of output. This is a true watershed moment, and in a lot of ways it rather feels like the genre suddenly “grows up” overnight. The schlocky drive-in pictures from the likes of William Castle remain, but even Roger Corman starts taking a page out of Hammer’s playbook here with more lavishly appointed productions. And at the top of the bill, you have a handful of certified classics. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
Indeed, there are almost too many horror films of merit in 1960 to discuss them in detail. Notably, Corman begins his “Poe series” here with House of Usher starring Vincent Price, the first in a series of collaborations that will also include more Poe stories like Masque of the Red Death, or even H.P. Lovecraft tales masquerading as Poe works, as in The Haunted Palace. Hammer releases its first sequel to Horror of Dracula, the somewhat diminished The Brides of Dracula, with Peter Cushing making an appearance as Van Helsing, while France’s Georges Franju produces the influential and visually unnerving Eyes Without a Face. Even Ingmar Bergman produces what could reasonably be referred to as a horror film, The Virgin Spring, a particularly brutal rape-and-revenge story that would set the stage for American grindhouse imitators like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Looking at a list of all the horror films produced in 1960, the sheer variety is mesmerizing—it’s a unique melange of the reimagined fears of yesteryear and the emergence of new, modern terrors.
One of the most important settings where those new horrors were emerging would prove to be Italy, where director Mario Bava released his first internationally famous work, Black Sunday. The story of a wicked witch who is betrayed by her brother and then returns from the grave 200 years later to seek revenge on her own descendents, it combined the neo-gothic stylings of Hammer Horror with the increasingly erotic sexploitation cinema bubbling up from Italy and Spain to set a sumptuous new precedent. Many of these same elements would be present in the popular rise of Italian giallo cinema, which would happen a few years later, with Bava again at the helm.
If there’s a single film in 1960 that could potentially challenge Psycho for the title, though, it’s Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. The two films would appear to be thematically linked, although Peeping Tom has always been far less well known—they both revolve around atypical serial killers who are pleasant and cordial in their daily lives, but are driven to kill by a form of madness fixated around their relationship with a parent. Featuring experimental cinematography that would later become commonplace in the slasher genre, such as killer’s POV shots that hold throughout several kills—or more accurately, shots through the camera of the killer—the film proves to be one of the most formative of all the proto-slashers. In fact, although Psycho is often credited with being the film to most prominently inspire the eventual birth of the proper slasher movie, Peeping Tom displays more of the hallmarks of the genre, including a roster of female victims and a more prototypical variant on the “final girl.” Much of this was lost on audiences of the day, who didn’t turn out in droves to see Peeping Tom as they did Psycho, but the likes of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and even Hitchcock himself were certainly paying attention.
1960 Honorable Mentions: Peeping Tom, The Virgin Spring, Black Sunday, Eyes Without a Face, House of Usher, Village of the Damned, The Brides of Dracula, The Little Shop of Horrors, 13 Ghosts
The Film: Psycho
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Produced in a time when many horror auteurs were expanding the boundaries of the genre via experimentation with modernized, upscaled production, such as Hammer’s vivid use of period sets and color, Hitchcock’s Psycho probably seemed, at first, as something of a step down for the director. He had just directed and produced North by Northwest, after all, on a budget five times the size of the one that was earmarked for his 1960, black-and-white psychological horror flick. But Psycho, as you surely know yourself, didn’t need expensive chase sequences or Cary Grant, clinging from Mount Rushmore. All it needed was Hitchcock’s willingness to embrace experimental filmmaking techniques, story structure and mature, psycho-sexual themes, the likes of which the genre had never seen before. If you were wondering: Despite being made on a fifth of the budget, Psycho ultimately raked in five times more at the box office than North by Northwest, ushering in a new era of American horror cinema with it.
It hardly seems necessary to summarize the plot of Psycho, but suffice to say, it’s the story of a woman who flings caution to the wind when she decides to run away from her life with a life-changing amount of stolen money. Or at least, we think that Psycho is this woman’s story, because we’re meant to. When lovely Janet Leigh pulls up to the sleepy little Bates Motel, however, the film becomes something else entirely. The infamous shower stabbing sequence is one of film’s great demarcation lines, in which Hitchcock succeeds not only in subverting but completely confounding a viewer’s expectations for what kind of story they think they’re watching. Is it a murder mystery? A proto-slasher? And defines a protagonist?
Inventive camera angles and rapid-fire cutting from Hitchcock and cinematographer John L. Russell give Psycho a unique visual identity in a number of sequences, from the shower death to Arbogast’s vertigo-inducing tumble down the stairwell, but it’s the characters that make the film sing. Anthony Perkins is masterful as poor Norman Bates, a man so fundamentally broken by his upbringing that he doesn’t even realize the nature of his depravity. He radiates such a sense of good-natured likeability and disarming passiveness in early dialog scenes with Leigh that it’s impossible not to be charmed on some level by him as the pair converse—and even seem to flirt, a bit—over sandwiches in the hotel parlor. She warms to his candor, and he casts himself quite effectively as the victim of his cruel mother’s overbearing control, even if he can’t bring himself to state it directly. Instead, he simply acknowledges that “we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out.” It was a portrait of a cold-blooded killer that most audiences had never seen before—not a mad dog, but a whimpering, sympathetic one that belied a hidden vicious streak.
As a side effect of the release and massive success of Psycho, it also became particularly clear that Hollywood’s Production Code would no longer rule the standards of what was possible within the horror genre. Although the Code would technically persist until 1968, when it was replaced by the current MPAA rating system, a period had begun in which minimal enforcement would lead to a steady increase in sexually risque and explicitly violent horror films—you can consider them Psycho’s vast brood.
1961: The Innocents
Almost any year would probably seem like a bit of a step down after the watershed that was 1960, and that’s pretty much the case for 1961, although it can lay claim to one of cinema’s best pure ghost stories in the form of The Innocents. After the clear #1 for this year, however, the rest of the field is considerably more workmanlike in comparison.
Roger Corman’s Poe cycle continues with the plush but grisly The Pit and the Pendulum, greatly expanding Edgar Allen Poe’s short story source material into a big-budget (for Corman, anyway) Gothic thriller starring a returning Vincent Price and Black Sunday’s Barbara Steele. The film’s drawn-out torture sequences (and the pendulum itself) would be informative on the next generation of Italian horror cinema in particular, where directors such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento would borrow some of its devices, plus quite a bit more blood. As for the Poe films by Corman, they’re all eminently watchable, although they tend to come off with an element of camp in modern viewing that likely wasn’t entirely intended. You might say that where Vincent Price leads, a macabre sense of humor tends to follow.
William Castle, meanwhile, releases two films within one calendar year; unabashed Psycho rip-off Homicidal and Mr. Sardonicus, a film seemingly inspired by the twisted face of Gwynplaine from 1928’s The Man Who Laughs. Per Castle tradition, each was accompanied by a gimmick: Homicidal featured a “fright break,” in which audience members who were too frightened to continue were invited to obtain a full refund, while Mr. Sardonicus featured a hilariously charming “punishment poll” at the end of the film, in which the audience was asked by Castle himself to vote upon mercy or punishment for the villain. Unsurprisingly, only the “punishment” ending was ever actually shot, and Castle takes childlike glee in tabulating the audience’s supposed votes. As he says in its conclusion, “Mr. projectionist, let the sentence be carried out!” Classic stuff.
Also busy in 1961 is Hammer Film Productions, which releases Terence Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf to complete its first wave of modernization of the classic Universal Monsters, along with the film that Christopher Lee considered Hammer Horror’s finest, mystery-thriller Taste of Fear.
1961 Honorable Mentions: The Pit and the Pendulum, Curse of the Werewolf, Mother Joan of the Angels, Taste of Fear, Homicidal, Mr. Sardonicus, Hercules in the Haunted World
The Film: The Innocents
Director: Jack Clayton
The Innocents is both one of cinema’s greatest gothic ghost stories and one of its preeminent displays of psychological horror, striking a uniquely balanced neutral point between supernatural and psychological interpretations. You can argue with relatively equal ease that the events of the film depict a genuine haunting, or occur entirely within the deeply repressed mind of its central character, and both views are potentially valid. The film leaves such conclusions entirely to the audience’s own discretion, and what we choose likely says a lot about how we view our world.
Scottish actress and perennial Academy Award nominee Deborah Kerr plays the bright-faced, optimistic Miss Giddens, a woman who seems desperate to leave her current life behind, for reasons unknown. We get the sense that she is deeply unfulfilled in some way, perhaps seeing her youth beginning to slip away, and naively believes that a post as a governess, taking care of two young children in the British countryside will afford her the kind of meaning her life has long lacked. And indeed, the children seem quite sweet, and the countryside almost impossibly verdant and splendid, at least at first. Only after getting to know the curiously precocious young ones does Miss Giddens begin to suspect that their lives have been warped by the deaths of their previous governess and her uncouth lover … and that perhaps the spirits of the dead aren’t resting idly.
The sense of mystery surrounding the real-or-imagined nature of that central haunting is aided by the screenplay’s seeming ambivalence toward that question, less an intended state and more a happy coincidence brought on by differing outlooks on the story among the film’s creative leads. Screenwriter William Archibald’s original script was written under the assumption that the ghosts presented in the story were real, while Truman Capote’s rewrites (he took a break in the writing of In Cold Blood to be there) added significantly more psychological and Freudian subtext. Director Jack Clayton, meanwhile, said he operated under the assumption that the apparitions were playing out exclusively in Miss Giddens mind, resulting in an overall presentation that can seem both gauzily dreamlike or coldly defined from scene to scene. At times, one is sure that something not-of-this-world must be going on; a few moments later we’re again given reason to doubt the reliability of our viewpoint character. We teeter on the edge of a breakdown in the very same way that Miss Giddens does, unsure of what to believe.
The Innocents is cold, beautiful and often starkly chilling in its austerity, with nighttime scenes that strand the image of Kerr on tiny islands of brilliant candlelight, set against vast seas of impenetrable blackness in the huge country estate where she and the children reside. Cinematography Freddie Francis captures some instantly iconic, unsettling images, such as the apparition of the previous governess standing motionlessly among a field of reeds, her jet black dress in perfect contrast with the tall grass. Above it all drifts the repeated, ethereal musical theme “O Willow Waly,” sung with mournful intensity by Scottish singer Isla Cameron, immeasurably amplifying the film’s palpable sense of loss and furtive longing.
Featuring outstanding performances from Kerr and especially from a startlingly mature 11-year-old Martin Stephens, who had also starred prominently one year earlier in Village of the Damned, The Innocents is an indispensable masterpiece for fans of classical ghost stories, psychological thrillers and gothic fiction. It deserves to be a must-see on any horror fan’s to-do list.
1962: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Another good year, at least compared to the doldrums of the early 1950s. Horror has pretty much established a baseline of quality here, where every year has enough releases—now coming from several different film markets, including Europe and Asia—that it always has a nicely varied pool to draw from. This year’s top few films fall more into the psychological thriller side of the spectrum, whereas other years are more dominated by gothic horror, monster movies, science fiction or the slowly emerging underground scene of more extreme, gore-forward horror.
The top picks for 1962 are a bit contingent upon whether you’d classify both What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Cape Fear as horror cinema. The first seems undeniable, featuring a mad-as-a-hatter Bette Davis serving her sister a dead parakeet and generally being completely unhinged. The latter is more of a discussion, but Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady certainly makes for a worthy horror villain and a logical continuation of The Night of the Hunter’s Rev. Harry Powell. One wonders if the horror elements of the film might have been played up even more if it had been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, as originally intended, rather than eventual director J. Lee Thompson.
Roger Corman is busy as ever in 1962, directing both Tales of Terror and Premature Burial, both continuing to draw on the name of Edgar Allen Poe. The latter is an odd outlier for the fact that it stars Ray Milland rather than the persistent Poe vessel of Vincent Price, but Price makes up for it by appearing in all three stories of anthology film Tales of Terror. I have a particular soft spot middle story “The Black Cat,” which sees a shabby, drunken Peter Lorre, in one of his last film performances, running circles around a snooty Price in a wine-tasting competition, before gleefully sealing him up alive in a loose adaptation of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The two would appear together once more, in 1963’s The Raven, from … yeah, it’s Corman again. Who else?
Other notable entries for 1962 include the effectively minimalist, Twilight Zone-reminiscent Carnival of Souls, the only feature film from director Herk Harvey, as well as yet another adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, this time from Hammer. And finally, we should note mad scientist flick The Awful Dr. Orloff, one of the first films from the prodigiously prolific Jesús Franco, which is generally credited as being Spain’s first proper horror film. As this decade goes on, both the Spanish and Italian horror markets will often become horror’s leading edge, especially when it comes to pushing the boundaries of “good taste.”
1962 Honorable Mentions: Carnival of Souls, Cape Fear, Night of the Eagle, Tales of Terror, Premature Burial, The Awful Dr. Orloff, The Phantom of the Opera
The Film: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Director: Robert Aldrich
The “psycho biddy” subgenre of horror has never been one that has seen a ton of exploration, but with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it can at least claim to have a rock-solid foundational text. This is a genuinely unnerving psychological horror film, sometimes wrongly referred to by cinema fans as a mere “thriller.” That word simply doesn’t cut it in describing Bette Davis as “Baby Jane” Hudson, a withered performer who makes Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond look positively well adjusted by comparison.
You’ll have to forgive the Sunset Boulevard reference, but it’s one of those cases where cinematic comparison between two movies is inevitable and impossible to ignore. They both revolve around forgotten starlets who live in crumbling Hollywood mansions, clinging to the past in desperation as their sanity leaves them behind. In “Baby” Jane’s case, though, there’s the unpleasant matter of Blanche as well. Paralyzed from the waist down decades earlier, in an accident that may or may not have been masterminded by her jealous sister, Joan Crawford portrays Blanche Hudson as a sweet, rather gullible, middle-aged ingenue who chooses to delude herself rather than admit that a quickly deteriorating and delusional Jane wants her dead.
And of course, by the time this becomes inarguable, it’s already far too late. The film’s horror often lies in Blanche’s realization of her powerlessness—as a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair on the house’s top floor, she has literally nowhere to go, and escape always seems both maddeningly close and impossibly far. It’s agonizing to watch her sit in her chair at the top of the stairway, weighing the likelihood of injuring or killing herself by trying to throw herself down the stairs to freedom. Few films capture the feeling of being trapped so well, or the indifference of those who might be able to help. Even in the film’s conclusion, as Blanche lays near death on the beach, she’s often only feet from those who might be able to help her—if only they would pay attention to her obvious plight. Instead, though, they just go on living their lives.
It should likely go without saying that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? requires a handful of trigger warnings when it comes to the subjects of emotional and physical familial abuse in particular. Jane’s methods of torture toward her sister are all the more shocking for the fact that we often don’t understand much in the way of their purpose—and nor does she, most likely. It’s not always clear whether she even knows what she’s doing to Blanche, but other scenes make it perfectly clear that she’s reveling in each opportunity to remind her sister that she holds her life in her hands. Still, as she slips further into delusion, and begins focusing more on reviving her long, long dead career, the film steadily changes tacks, giving us as many reasons to pity Jane as we have to fear her. The relationship between the two sisters is ultimately revealed to be both more and less complicated than we’ve been led to believe.
To modern audiences, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is likely best known simply as a backdrop, against which the personal feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford played out. Be this as it may, it remains an extremely effective, Hitchcockian thriller, ripe with pathos, and deserves to be evaluated on its own merit, rather than as a footnote in a classic bit of Hollywood gossip.
1963: The Haunting
Another year of grab-bag variety, 1963 gives us a wealth of new films from Italy, including what is generally regarded as the birth of the giallo genre. Elsewhere, Hitchcock unleashes another classic, Roger Corman goes into total overdrive, and Herschell Gordon Lewis releases what is often referred to as the first “splatter” film, Blood Feast.
Obviously, Hitchcock’s The Birds is a major co-headliner here. Its allegorical tale of birds that go berserk and attack the residents of Bodega Bay presaged the coming 1970s wave of ecological horror films, which would be endlessly imitated in the wake of Spielberg’s Jaws. Here, the birds’ attack would seem to represent both an antibody-like response to mankind’s ungrateful pillaging of the natural world, and a visual representation of the blossoming relationship between the characters portrayed by Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. It lacks some of the human-driven suspense seen in Hitchcock’s best thrillers, but who can forget the sight of Hedren, ironically trapped in a phone booth like a parakeet, watching as a swarm of birds tears the world apart around her?
In Italy, meanwhile, Mario Bava is having one of the most dynamic single years that any horror director has ever had, helming three different films: Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Two of them are gothic revival horror films starring icons of the genre—Christopher Lee as a masochistic aristocrat in Whip, and a revitalized Boris Karloff as the creepy host of horror anthology Sabbath. The other, released in the U.S. as Evil Eye, is the least known today, but ultimately was among the most influential films in the history of Italian cinema, given its reputation as the first true giallo. This thriller-horror sub-genre blossomed throughout the 1960s and became extremely popular in the 1970s, incorporating elements of murder mystery and detective fiction into crime, psychological thriller and occasionally overtly supernatural stories. The name, which is the Italian word for “yellow,” refers to the fact that giallo films were often evocative of the cheap, sensationalized mystery/crime paperback novels that were popular in post-war Italy, which were printed with yellow covers. Bava can be considered the genre’s godfather, but subsequent giallo films will give us some of the most notable works from the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi.
In the U.S.A., Roger Corman is riding high as the country’s preeminent schlock artist of the day. His The Haunted Palace takes the Poe Cycle in an odd new direction, adapting the H.P. Lovecraft novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and claiming it as a Poe creation, while X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes is a classic bit of sci-fi pulp that feels like it would have fit in neatly among the science fiction horror films of the previous decade, but for the considerably more lurid tone. At the same time, Corman’s status as producer willing to give chances to new talent is already being established, as he gives the leftover budget of the film The Young Racers to a 24-year-old Francis Ford Coppola, who uses it to write and direct his low-budget debut, Dementia 13. In the coming years, Corman productions will essentially give first chances to a who’s who of American directorial and acting titans, from Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard to Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, James Cameron, Nicolas Roeg, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone and more. Together, they’re often referred to as graduates of “The Roger Corman Film School,” denoting what has arguably been Corman’s deepest contribution to American filmmaking.
1963 Honorable Mentions: The Birds, Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Haunted Palace, Paranoiac, The Raven, X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Blood Feast
The Film: The Haunting
Director: Robert Wise
Thematically, The Haunting is a bit like the American answer to The Innocents in the U.K. two years earlier. Both are psychologically driven, seemingly classical ghost stories that use the possibility of the supernatural to tease out modern revelations. Both feature a central, female viewpoint character who is characterized by her psychological and emotional fragility, struggling to reconcile her own desires against her societal responsibilities. Both leave ample room for discussion on the nature of what actually occurs in their plots, and how many of the events are imagined.
As for which is out and out more frightening, though? Well, that’s when it gets hard to deny The Haunting. Robert Wise’s film is one of the genre’s most effective chillers, and one of its most enduring masterclasses in getting the maximum amount of tension and suspense out of the slightest instances of suggestion and supernatural phenomena. It’s an inhumanly patient film, repeatedly luring audience members into lowering their defenses before springing another jolt on them.
Adapted from the same Shirley Jackson source material that gave us Netflix’s (reimagined, but effective) The Haunting of Hill House, Wise’s adaptation hews much closer to the novel on which it was based. It follows a nebbish young woman, Eleanor, who is experiencing a crushing degree of guilt over her mother’s recent death, coupled with the life-long anxiety she’s experienced after a childhood poltergeist experience. Invited to join a paranormal investigation of the infamous Hill House, Eleanor feels compelled to accept, even as her misgivings flare constantly. Arriving at the house and meeting her fellow researchers, she’s torn between feelings of terror and an intense longing to be somehow possessed by the force she feels there. Is it simply a reflection of Eleanor’s repressed self, begging for release from the pains of her life? Or has a dark force awoken in the bowels of Hill House, intent on making Eleanor its own?
Unlike The Innocents, where almost every instance of supernatural activity could theoretically be explained away by Deborah Kerr’s mental instability, there certainly does seem to be something unexplainable happening in Hill House. Doors open and close of their own accord. Loud banging issues from unknown points of origin. People behave strangely, seeming to lose track of their own wills. The house has a powerful force of personality, and few seem capable of resisting its gravitational pull.
As Eleanor, actress Julie Harris gives one of the horror genre’s most vulnerable, emotionally affecting performances. The audience both empathizes with and is unnerved by Eleanor from the start, owing partially to her strange, disembodied voiceover sequences, which seem filled with dreamy non-sequiturs that force the viewer to immediately question her state of mind. Even more than her voice, though, it’s Harris’ rheumy, plaintive eyes that hint at the way she’s desperately trying to hold herself together in the face of forces both external and internal that seem to want to tear her apart. Her denouement at the end of the film captures its spirit in the most perfectly creepy manner: “Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here, walk alone.”
1964: Blood and Black Lace
Another year of incredible horror output all over the globe, 1964 has a wealth of riches to discover. It’s the perfect mix of everything, from ghost stories, to monster movies, to proto-slashers. This certainly would have been an exciting time to be a horror fan, as the genre is more eclectic in this moment than it ever had been before. Even Brazil chips in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, the first in its bizarre, grisly “Coffin Joe” trilogy.
From Japan comes a film that, along with next year’s Kwaidan, will help put Asian horror on the map: Onibaba. A deeply human story with hints of supernatural flourish, Kaneto Shindo’s film sets itself against the backdrop of a civil war, in a time when any pretense of humanity has been abandoned in favor of animal survival. As Paste contributor Andy Crump notes in our ranking of the 100 best horror films of all time: “Onibaba will make you sweat and give you chills all at once, with its power found in Shindo’s blend of atmosphere and eroticism. It’s a sexy film, and a dangerous film, and in its very last moments a terrifying, unnerving film where morality comes full circle to punish its protagonists for their foibles and their sins. There’s a classicism to Onibaba’s drama, a sense of cosmic comeuppance: Characters do wrong and have their wrongs visited upon them by the powers that be.”
In the U.S., Vincent Price continues to be the most dependable performer in the horror genre, starring in a trio of notable films: Two more Roger Corman “Poe cycle” movies, The Tomb of Ligeia and the particularly gorgeous-looking Masque of the Red Death, but also Ubaldo Ragona’s beautifully atmospheric The Last Man on Earth, the first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, which has subsequently been adapted twice more. Of those adaptations, The Last Man on Earth likely keeps closest to the tone that was intended, combining a post-apocalyptic survivalist mentality with an unexpected revelation that totally reframes the role of the protagonist at the film’s midpoint, making it a unique exercise in cinematic ethics within the horror genre. More formative, perhaps, are the scenes of Price’s character as he barricades himself inside his home, fighting off vampiric invaders who are trying to break in—images that would apparently gestate in the mind of director George A. Romero until he sprung Night of the Living Dead upon the world in 1968.
Meanwhile, at Hammer, things are still moving at full tilt, as the company releases one of its only mythologically inspired horror films, The Gorgon, along with its second Frankenstein sequel, The Evil of Frankenstein. The latter, despite not being among the best in the series, is notable for being a rare co-production between Hammer and Universal, which allowed the British studio’s designers to create a monster this time around that evoked Boris Karloff’s original makeup, albeit with a less-than-satisfactory result. It’s a fun novelty, and a lavish-looking film at times, but it lacks the narrative cohesion and steady direction of the earlier efforts from Terence Fisher.
1964 Honorable Mentions: Onibaba, The Last Man on Earth, The Masque of the Red Death, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Evil of Frankenstein, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, Strait-Jacket, The Gorgon, The Tomb of Ligeia
The Film: Blood and Black Lace
Director: Mario Bava
Psycho receives a lot of commendation and credit for being one of the most influential films on the concept of the “slasher” horror genre, but in truth it’s not a very precise genesis point for the genre later defined by the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th. Psycho is largely character driven, with its antagonist simultaneously serving as a sympathetic viewpoint character, and it harbors a deeply psychological point of view that is unlike the more primal attitude of a classic slasher film. Although it may feature a few graphic knifings, it doesn’t really structure itself around them. Its killings are more important in that they serve the story being told, rather than existing for their own sake.
Blood and Black Lace, on the other hand, truly plays like a missing link between Psycho or Peeping Tom and the classic, “body count” slashers of the early 1980s, with a significantly more misanthropic attitude that revels in its on-screen violence. Perhaps the single most influential giallo film ever made, it codified some of the early tropes of a nascent film genre, innovated a few new ones of its own, and did so with a sumptuous visual aesthetic that proved difficult for any of its imitators to match. In a career full of classics, it is perhaps Bava’s prettiest and most drum-tight film.
The action takes place in a cavernous fashion house where high-end models are dressed, primped and prepared to don their haute couture and walk the runway, offering ample opportunity for the camera to both leer at a bevy of young women and examine the way they’re degraded by their industry, which treats them as little more than domesticated animals. When one of the company’s girls is violently murdered, it throws the entire organization into an uproar, with suspicion landing on almost every person employed in the building. But what are we to make of the fact that none of the deaths can be traced to any individual? Bava ultimately uses a variety of simple (but effective) tricks to divert the audience’s suspicions until his big reveal.
It’s the set-up for an old-fashioned murder mystery, but Blood and Black Lace also deviates from its forebears by being less concerned about the mystery and suspects on hand than it is with the killings themselves. This truly feels like a ground zero for the pulpy, grindhouse aesthetic that would prioritize death sequences, and the manner of the deaths, above all else in terms of providing entertainment. The unfortunate crew of models bite the dust in all manner of ways that were both inventive and notably grisly for the time, whether it’s burned to death by being pushed against a hot furnace, drowned in the bathtub or being stabbed through the face with a spiked glove. The film makes it clear: You are there to watch people die, and die in the most stylish way possible.
The influence of Blood and Black Lace would echo through the giallo genre for the next two decades, inspiring endless imitation. Its blank, stocking-faced killer in a hat and black leather gloves essentially became the template for a stock giallo killer, allowing the antagonist to appear in stalk-and-chase sequences without divulging his (or her) identity, while Bava’s fantastical array of rainbow lighting was a clear inspiration on the works of filmmakers such as Dario Argento. Many would attempt to replicate the success of Blood and Black Lace, and some would come close, but few other films in the genre are as much the total package as this one.
Overall, the horror film crop for 1965 feels perhaps slightly less notable than the last few landmark years, but there’s certainly no shortage of movies to recommend. In particular, this is a year with some notable thrillers that are a bit difficult to parse with the usual “is it horror?” question, a scenario that will persist through the back half of this decade. With some films, like The Collector, we’re compelled to give an automatic “yes” on content alone. With others, like Bette Davis in The Nanny, it’s a case of a film feeling fairly close to the horror genre, but not quite being all of the way there.
One film that inarguably qualifies on this front is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a much-praised psychological thriller that follows Carole, a woman disgusted by the sexual advances of the men in her life as she cloisters herself in her sister’s apartment, withdraws from reality and slowly descends into madness. Using the foundations of the apartment itself as a physical metaphor for the mental condition of its protagonist, Repulsion otherwise offers few obvious indications of what is going through the minds of its characters, seeming to view humanity and modern relationships with the same sort of disgust that Carole feels whenever another man tries to force himself on her. A persistent theme seems to be the inability to cope with life’s many failures—or whether it’s easier to simply acquiesce to them.
The British market is also still pumping out horror films in 1965, with the likes of Fanatic from Hammer, but a new studio has arisen that will give Hammer a run for its money: Amicus Productions. Some Amicus films, like this year’s The Skull starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, are very much in the mold of classic Hammer period pieces, but the studio simultaneously differentiated itself via experimentation with star-studded horror anthologies, like this year’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. These films, which also included the likes of The House That Dripped Blood and Tales From the Crypt, were usually built around a humorous central framing device and took place in the present day, giving them a more contemporary (but often no less cheesy) flair. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors again brings Cushing and Lee together, but it’s Cushing who steals the show as the beautifully costumed “Dr. Terror,” who delivers a series of Tarot card-themed scary stories to his fellow passengers on a train car that may or may not be bound for hell. It’s one of Cushing’s most macabrely gregarious performances, as the guy seems to be having the time of his life in the role of omniscient storyteller. It’s a fitting performance for a corner of the genre that revolves more around having fun than achieving genuine fear.
1965 Honorable Mentions: Repulsion, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Collector, The Skull, Planet of the Vampires, Fanatic
The Film: Kwaidan
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Kwaidan was released in its homeland of Japan with an unusually serious degree of pomp and circumstance—a quartet of ghost stories (the title is a transliteration of “Kaidan,” which literally means those words) that could boast a big budget and the intensely detailed production design to match. It won prizes at Cannes, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and essentially did everything you never see a “horror movie” do in modern cinema, becoming a touchstone along the way for the rare instances in which horror films have been treated with real a real sense of gravitas. And fittingly so: Kwaidan is a textural and visual masterpiece that treats each of its tales with the dignity of Shakespearean tragedy.
Or, as Paste’s own Dom Sinacola wrote in our list of the 100 best horror films of all time, which includes Kwaidan in its top 20:
Ghost stories don’t get much more gorgeous than the four in Masaki Kobayashi’s sprawling Kwaidan. Between two acerbically political and widely lauded samurai epics, Hara-kiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967), Kobayashi led what was then Japan’s most expensive cinematic production ever, an anthology film with its parts loosely connected by Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese folk tales and Kobayashi’s intuitive penchant for surreal, sweepingly lush sets.
In “The Black Hair,” a selfish, impoverished ronin (Rentaro Mikuni) abandons his wife to marry into wealth, only to realize he made a dire mistake, plunging him into a gothic nightmare of decay and regret. “The Woman of the Snow” follows a craftsman (the always welcome Tatsuya Nakadai) doomed to have everything he loves stolen from him by a patient bureaucratic specter. The movie-unto-itself, “Hoichi the Earless,” pits the titular blind monk musician (Katsua Nakamura) against a family of ghosts, forcing the bard to recite—in hushed, heartbreaking passages on the biwa—the story of their wartime demise. Rapt with indelible images (most well known, perhaps, is Hoichi’s skin completely covered in the script of The Heart Sutra to ward off the ghosts’ influence), “Hoichi the Earless” is both deeply unnerving and quietly tragic, wrung with the sadness of Kobayashi’s admission that only forces beyond our control hold the keys to our fates. The fourth, and by far the weirdest, entry, “In a Cup of Tea,” is a tale within a tale, purposely unfinished because the writer (Osamu Takizawa) who’s writing about a samurai (Noboru Nakaya) who keeps seeing an unfamiliar man (Kei Sato) in his cup of tea is in turn attacked by the malicious spirits he’s conjuring. From these disparate fairy tales, plenty of fodder for campfires, Kobayashi creates a mythos for his country’s haunted past: We are nothing if not the pawns of all those to come before.
The legacy of Kwaidan has lived on through the decades, as other horror anthologies have often repeated its highlights, occasionally in full. Perhaps most notable was 1990’s Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, which copies “The Woman of the Snow” almost verbatim, only stopping to transplant the location from feudal Japan to urban America. It likely goes without saying that it ultimately lacks the frosty intimacy of the former.
1966: Dracula: Prince of Darkness
A trend is beginning to come into focus in 1966—it isn’t a weaker year, per se, if you’re judging purely by the volume of horror fare being released, but you’re not really seeing films you’d describe as having grand artistic aspirations or novel approaches. The giallo genre has become well established, and Hammer has been at its monster remakes for a good while. All in all, the horror cinema of this stretch, from roughly 1965-1967, is just beginning to feel slightly more stale. It’s a bit more like an era of potboilers, as established genres continue their successes, and the rest of the industry waits for the next evolution in horror, which would arrive on a few fronts in 1968.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some fascinating films. Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby … Kill! deserves credit for turning away from giallo and in the direction of supernatural suspense and horror, just as the giallo genre was heating up. It’s another film with Bava’s hallucinatory visual style and vivid colors, although they’re not quite as striking in their contrasts here as they are in Blood and Black Lace. So, too, does it invert the typical iconography of the genre, using a weathered old witch as one of its primary protagonists, whereas evil is symbolized by the spirit of a sweet-looking young girl, who compels those she curses to kill themselves in grisly ways. The film certainly has its prominent fans, Martin Scorsese and Dario Argento among them.
Meanwhile, Hammer releases a film with oft-overlooked importance to the zombie genre, The Plague of the Zombies. The “walking dead” of its title are still zombies in the Haitain voodoo sense, as seen in films such as I Walked With a Zombie, but their visual design seems highly influential upon the “reanimated corpse” style of zombies seen in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead two years later. In fact, the bulging eyes and broken teeth of these zombies is in some ways a more visually striking image than Romero’s ghouls, though their menace is slightly undercut by the fact that these particular undead have been enslaved by an immoral industrialist to labor in his tin mines. Still, one wonders if The Plague of the Zombies might be a more cherished entry in the Hammer library if it could have boasted the presence of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. It’s hard to say, but we’ll go out on a limb and say that these are some of the scariest-looking “zombies” of the pre-Romero era.
1966 Honorable Mentions: Kill, Baby … Kill!, The Plague of the Zombies, The Diabolical Dr. Z, Daimajin, Island of Terror
The Film: Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Director: Terence Fisher
Hammer’s second sequel to Horror of Dracula was director Terence Fisher’s last time helming an entry in the iconic vampire series, and with this opportunity he delivers a good old-fashioned, no-frills gothic chiller. It’s easily the least complicated of the sequels featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula, and arguably the most effective as a result.
There’s nothing superfluous in this film—it’s a basic, antiquated setup and somewhat dated aesthetic, but it feels as if this was all by design; a conscious return to the roots of the character. You can sum it all up in one sentence: A group of four English travelers is lost in the hinterlands, where they make the phenomenally bad choice to take shelter in Dracula’s seemingly abandoned castle, reawakening the vampire in the process. There’s a bit more to it than that—Dracula has a servant who aids in his resurrection, for instance—but ultimately this is an entry in the “trapped overnight in a haunted house” genre, almost like a revival of The Cat and the Canary or James Whale’s The Old Dark House. Like the best Old Dark House films, then, it benefits greatly from its impressive and intricately decorated sets, which rank among the best in Hammer’s monster revival series.
Visually and tonally, the film maintains a serious, spooky edge. We play through all the classic vampire tropes, from Dracula’s animal magnetism with the ladies to his weakness when confronted with holy symbols, but there’s a sense throughout that for all these helpless modern travelers, it’s only a matter of time before the vampire picks them all off. In that sense, Dracula: Prince of Darkness seems almost exactly like what someone who had never seen a Dracula movie would probably EXPECT to see in one—a sort of greatest hits reel for the entire vampire genre.
Christopher Lee, it must be said, is at his best despite limited screen time—he looks regal and commanding, but more than a little crazed. He has a grand total of zero lines of dialog in Prince of Darkness, instead behaving more like a barely restrained animal, although the cause for this lack of dialog has since passed into horror genre legend. Lee always maintained that he simply refused to read the lines that were written for him, feeling embarrassed by the poor dialog, while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster later defended himself by claiming that his script never contained any dialog for Dracula in the first place. It’s hard to know exactly who to believe, but it hardly tarnishes the old-school delights of seeing Dracula prey on the unwary in Prince of Darkness. It’s the vampire genre’s equivalent of simple comfort food.
1967: Wait Until Dark
1967 feels like a bit of a step up from the preceding year, although there’s still a sense that the horror genre is waiting for the next evolutionary step to arrive. Still, this is an overall solid year of thrillers with horror elements, horror comedies, horror fantasy and classic Hammer output.
Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers is a notable film of the year that has always polarized audiences to some degree, and understandably so—it’s a strangely wrought film that can be compared to little else. It’s a feature-length satirization of the atmosphere of Gothic horror cinema more so than it is a parody of any specific Hammer or Universal production, and it does an incredible job with elements such as period costuming, fabulously detailed sets and the vampires themselves—in some cases, you might even argue that it does the Hammer aesthetic even better than Hammer. The film’s comedy, on the other hand, has aged more poorly, and it’s difficult to accept the film as a lighthearted, sexy farce when you’ve got both Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate on screen, knowing what will happen involving each of them within a few years. Add to that the often muffled, difficult to understand dialog and the film loses some of its luster on modern viewing, although Polanski’s active, gliding camera movements add some pizazz to sequences such as the vampire masquerade. Now, as then, it’s a film that defies easy evaluation.
At Hammer, meanwhile, the Quatermass science fiction horror series gets another sequel, while Terence Fisher directs the most ambitiously odd entry in the company’s Frankenstein series, Frankenstein Created Woman. This time around, Peter Cushing’s caddish doctor has moved beyond attempting simple monster-building or brain transplantation and is instead experimenting with transference of the human soul itself, opening up the series to an entirely different style of metaphysical rumination. The film plays around with gender roles (a bit clumsily), transplanting the soul of a man into the body of an attractive young woman, who then carries out a series of revenge killings on behalf of the male soul within her. Rarely does Frankenstein Created Woman stop to lay down any kind of concrete rules regarding this soul-swapping procedure, which makes for somewhat confusing plotting and motivation—it’s hard to know who is supposed to be in control of this woman’s body at any given moment. We also don’t get nearly as much Peter Cushing this time around, but the film is more memorable than others for its tonal deviation from the typical gothic formula. For once, we have a Frankenstein movie that doesn’t end with a burning laboratory or exploding castle.
Elsewhere, this is a solid year for international horror, as the USSR contributes the fairy tale-esque psychological fantasy-horror film Viy, while Mexico continues Coffin Joe’s sadistic reign of misogynistic terror in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse.
1967 Honorable Mentions: Frankenstein Created Woman, Quatermass and the Pit, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Viy, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse
The Film: Wait Until Dark
Director: Terence Young
The basic plot outline of Wait Until Dark could just as easily make for a modern home invasion thriller, but Terence Young’s film holds itself with a little bit more gravity than that. A classic American thriller at heart, it qualifies on the “horror” front for the genuinely menacing performance of Alan Arkin, and the perfect sympathetic heroine in Audrey Hepburn. It bears all the hallmarks of a stage play adapted into a feature film, which it is, but it plays its pieces so deftly and with such rapidity that it never feels stilted or unrealistic. Or, it might be more accurate to say that even if there are some holes here, the viewer is likely too riveted to notice them.
The MacGuffin of the film is an old-fashioned child’s doll, which secretly contains a valuable stash of heroin. After being smuggled into the country, it mistakenly ends up in the possession of a photographer named Sam and his wife Susy (Hepburn), who was blinded one year earlier in an auto accident. And unfortunately for Susy, her absentee husband isn’t around when unsavory types seeking the doll start to come calling.
What commences is a fraught game of cat and mouse, which ends up being significantly more twisty than one would initially expect. The three men seeking the doll concoct an elaborate and devious con to pry the information out of Susy, totally unaware of the fact that she genuinely has no idea of its location. Likewise, they don’t account for her well-developed senses of perception and intuition, as she quickly begins to piece together that not everything is as they claim. It’s a simple and effective way to get the audience into Hepburn’s corner—the film makes her first naive, and then increasingly capable and inventive. We want to see her conquer the criminals at their own game, not only because her life might be at stake but because the world expects less of her thanks to her disability. So too do we want to see her develop the confidence she’ll no doubt need to stand up to her demanding husband, who in her own words wants her to perform as a “world champion blind lady.” Susy is ultimately a person with few allies—she must fall back on a well of inner strength instead of praying for outside interference, in true slasher movie fashion.
The film absolutely shines when it comes to infusing its quiet moments with suspense, showing a Hitchcockian flair (it feels a lot like Rope or Rear Window, with its one location) in sequences such as Susy rummaging through her closet, unaware that there’s a corpse only inches away. Arkin, meanwhile, shows a lot of range as the suave, sociopathic professional killer of the bunch, disguising himself as multiple characters as part of the scam to make Susy reveal the doll’s location. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to the rousing climax, where the showdown between good and evil is capped off by one of the most genuinely surprising jump scares in the history of the genre. We’ll say no more—suffice to say, it’s one of those moments that must have brought audiences out of their seats in 1967, and it’s still wonderfully effective today.
1968: Night of the Living Dead
After a few years where the horror genre felt like it was mostly treading water, 1968 signals the start of another paradigm shift. This is a top-flight year all around, but it signifies a time when the genre is growing and changing, leaving behind some of the vestiges of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Even at studios such as Hammer, which has been cranking out fairly similar gothic horror films for the last decade, it’s clear that change is in the air. The low-budget success of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a beacon and inspiration for the coming crop of indie filmmakers who will usher in the New Hollywood era, starting with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider in 1969—check out our appreciation of that film’s 50th anniversary here. But it’s NOTLD that proved you could shoot a horror film for around $100,000 and have it gross 250 times its budget. Those numbers were not lost on the new generation of hungry filmmakers.
Only one other film from 1968 mounts a serious campaign to be considered in the #1 spot, and that is Roman Polanski’s urban masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby. The modern tenement/apartment setting of the film brought a story with supernatural implications into what was a new and unsettlingly familiar locale, where an array of “well-meaning” faces walk all over a meek Mia Farrow, taking advantage of society’s expectations that she be subservient to the desires of almost everyone else in her life. Paste’s Dom Sinacola puts it best, in our ranking of the 100 best horror films of all time: “With Rosemary’s Baby, the body of young Rosemary is the institution through which Satan’s malice gestates, a body over which everyone but Rosemary herself seems to have any control. At the mercy of her overbearing neighbors (played by a pitch-perfect Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), her Ur-Dudebro husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), and the doctor (Ralph Bellamy) recommended by her high society cadre of new friends, Rosemary is treated as if she’s the last person who knows what’s best for her and her fetus—a position she accepts as a matter of fact. She’s only a woman, a homemaker at that, so such is her lot.”
At Hammer, meanwhile, this is about the time when studio executives, perhaps looking at the increasingly extreme violence and more overt sexuality present in the films of their American competitors, begin to ramp up the sexualization of their franchises, in entries like this year’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave—just look at the poster, if you want the world’s least subtle indicator of how things were changing. These changes don’t always fit in an organic way—although actresses like consummate Hammer Horror buxom beauty Veronica Carlson are no doubt lovely, their increasingly sexualized presentation often seems simply shoehorned into stories that are otherwise traditional gothic monster movies. These films are often still entertaining, but as the close of the decade draws near, Hammer’s output increasingly takes on an exploitative tinge that seems designed to help it compete against the American exploitation pictures of the day, losing some of its sense of gravitas in the process.
1968 Honorable Mentions: Rosemary’s Baby, Kuroneko, Hour of the Wolf, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Witchfinder General, The Devil Rides Out, Spirits of the Dead
The Film: Night of the Living Dead
Director: George A. Romero
It’s sort of funny to think that, in the film always cited as being the progenitor of the modern zombie genre, the word “zombie” is never actually uttered by anyone. The use of that particular term to describe the reanimated corpses seen in Night of the Living Dead was a pop cultural affectation that seems to have grown out of our previous use of the word “zombie,” but as for Romero, he mostly called the creatures “ghouls.” Not that it really matters—the importance of Night of the Living Dead is hardly in its impact on semantics. Its monumental influence is seen pretty much everywhere else, though: In the enduring images of Romero’s version of the undead; in the revolutionary new depiction of on-screen gore; in its low-budget and independent nature; in the color-blind casting of Duane Jones as Ben, the film’s de facto protagonist. Rarely has any one horror film innovated in so many areas at once.
To young horror fans who take in the film today for the first time, the thought of its on-screen violence being shocking might seem overblown, but to audiences of the day, it truly was a revelation, even in the seemingly protective starkness of black and white. The oozing skull of a freshly killed ghoul is an image that was seared into the collective memory of those shell-shocked souls who stumbled out of midnight screenings of the film in 1968 and its various re-releases in the years to come, but it’s the contemporary critical reviews that best capture the tone of moral outrage the film caused in some circles. Variety wrote the following, seemingly calling on the federal government itself to censor the visual affront that NOTLD represented:
“Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence, Night of the Living Dead will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example. In [a] mere 90 minutes this horror film (pun intended) casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distributor Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and [exhibitors] who book [the picture], as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of film goers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism.”
When major publications are questioning “the moral health” of the average cinemagoer, it’s safe to say that some kind of cultural revolution is probably underway, and hey—it was the late 1960s, after all. So too does the film reflect more than a decade of societal anxiety related to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, although this was hardly intended by Romero, who initially wrote the character of Ben with a white actor in mind. After discovering Duane Jones, however, the role of Ben took on entirely new significance—a brave, proactive, heroic man whose race largely isn’t a factor in his generally valorous portrayal. Only in his interactions with the more cowardly, selfishly minded (and white) Harry Cooper does the specter of race factor in strongly, but this only made Ben that much more of an icon to black audiences: A hero who stands his ground rather than kowtowing to white authority. Or as Ben puts it, sealing Harry up in the defenseless basement where he’s chosen to isolate himself: “You can be the boss down there. I’m the boss up here!” And then there’s the film’s incredibly bleak ending, which plays very differently when its “rescue” crews are accidentally gunning down a black man, as opposed to a white man.
Finally, and most obviously, NOTLD’s concept of the reanimated corpse as “zombie” provided us with the template for the 21st century’s single most popular and socially relevant monster. The basic rules established here, such as needing to “destroy the brain” in order to stop a ghoul, persisted and were embellished by decades of films to follow, but the still-beating heart of Romero’s vision remains largely intact even now, more than half a century later. In the interim, Romero-style zombies have been used to represent every conceivable form of symbolism, from mindless consumers, to deadly pathogens, to screen-addicted millennials. It’s an outline that has proven as endlessly adaptable as it is persistently horrific. Where would the horror genre of the 1970s, 1980s and beyond have been, without zombies?
1969: Horrors of Malformed Men
After 1968 provided us with twin classics, 1969’s horror offerings are a bit more down to Earth, although plenty weird. There’s no shortage of volume this year, but nothing that feels like a masterpiece of the genre. Instead, 1969 highlights the continued emergence of horror cinema in several international settings, including Japan, Mexico and Czechoslovakia.
The latter is a curious film called The Cremator, set in 1930s Prague, where the title character operates a crematorium and is obsessed with the spiritual aspect of burning the bodies of the deceased. He believes himself to be something of a cosmic ferryman, releasing the souls of those who die as a result of the encroaching wave of German fascism, giving the film a distinctly political aura. Striding the tipping point between dark drama and psychological horror, The Cremator was banned in Czechoslovakia for 20 years following its release, but is now hailed as one of the most important entries of Czech New Wave filmmaking.
This is likewise a year for trippy horror cinema out of Japan, including several films that experiment with depictions of sexual perversion, captivity and the degradation of the human form. Blind Beast, also known simply as Moju, is a rather disturbing depiction of power, misogyny and Stockholm syndrome in action, whereas Horrors of Malformed Men makes it difficult to not consider the psychological fallout of a country scarred by the atom bomb attacks at the end of the second world war.
Other notable films include the awesomely titled Hammer sequel Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, which is among the better entries in the series except for the distressing decision to write a rape scene between Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein and the character played by Veronica Carlson—a seqence seemingly intended to ramp up the “sexuality” of the series, but instead it comes off as entirely out of place and gratuitous. Twilight Zone fans will also want to check out the Night Gallery TV film from 1969, as it launched Rod Serling’s horror-focused NBC series in style.
Finally, Ray Harryhausen devotees know that this is the year of The Valley of Gwangi, showcasing some of Harryhausen’s best stop-motion dinosaur work, although it had become notably more difficult to impress audiences with stop-motion effects by 1969. Sadly, it’s an art that is on its way out by this time.
1969 Honorable Mentions: The Cremator, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Blind Beast, The House That Screamed, The Valley of Gwangi, The Book of Stone, Night Gallery (TV movie)
The Film: Horrors of Malformed Men
Director: Teruo Ishii
The choice of a top film for 1969 could have gone in a number of directions, but ultimately we were swayed by the pure, unrelenting bizarrity of Horrors of Malformed Men. A bad acid trip captured beautifully on celluloid, this work from cult Japanese director Teruo Ishii is like taking a pilgrimage to the island of Dr. Moreau, rendered as a home movie shot by Nicolas Winding Refn. It is, suffice to say, pretty damn weird.
Just trying to describe the plot of this film is a trip in and of itself. It opens with a young man who has been wrongfully imprisoned—or has he?—in a mental institution, with no memory of how he got there. Escaping, he sees the face of a dead man in a newspaper obituary that perfectly matches his own, and decides to slip into that upper class man’s life. To this point, the film plays like some kind of psychological mystery or noir, but the protagonist is then drawn toward a mysterious island, and that’s where the real fun begins. You want malformed men? You get malformed men, and then some.
Visually, this is a bizarre, colorful, orgiastic feast for the senses, combining the tawdry feel of a prime Bava giallo with a more serious director’s attempt at thematic profundity. The movie goes out of its way to provoke strong reactions by any means necessary, bandying around its deviant sexual imagery as if it’s nothing. The effect is jaw-dropping, but also increasingly profound as time goes by. Soaking it in, one begins to feel that the sight of these “malformed men” is a visual metaphor that stands in for the whole of post-war, post-bomb Japan—not only the humans who were literally maimed at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but also the nation’s wounded psyche.
The man you would call the “villain” of Horrors of Malformed Men, Jogoro, is ultimately the synthesis of 20-plus years of post-war anxiety. He is one of the most stark raving mad of all cinematic antagonists, played with slinky perfection by actor Tatsumi Hijkata, moving with unnatural undulations that make him look like some kind of boneless aquatic creature that crawled up onto land. He casts a truly demented shadow upon the film’s superior second half, ruling the island like a sadistic philosopher king, as the audience is drawn ever deeper into the consciousness-expanding visuals.
Outside of the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, you’ll be hard pressed to find more perfectly strange but hypnotically compelling material—a film you will remember in singular, head-scratching images for years to come.
1970: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
The early 1970s are an odd time for horror, when it can sometimes feel like the genre is being produced in abundance, everywhere but the USA. European horror output is certainly through the roof right now, whether it’s the relentless Hammer sequels in the U.K., a steady stream of giallo from Italy, sexploitation films from Spain or the emergence of arty horror fare from Czechoslovakia. The global volume of horror cinema is rarely more robust than it is in the first half of this decade—it’s just a bit odd to see the U.S. market seemingly failing to keep up with the voracious European appetite for blood and bared breasts. Of course, things won’t stay that way for too much longer, but in this moment, Europe’s dominance of the genre is fairly pronounced.
Chief among this year’s international offerings is the fantastical, deeply confusing (but visually sumptuous) Valerie and Her Week of Wonders from Czechoslovakia, which tells an allegorical story of a 14-year-old girl’s puberty and sexual awakening, as condensed into a week filled with bizarre mistaken identities and the occasional vampire. The film defies any attempt to categorize it, existing on the periphery of horror and psychedelia—a mysterious film that is loathe to give up any of its secrets.
Vampires, indeed, are being portrayed all throughout Europe with more sex appeal than ever these days. In the U.K., The Vampire Lovers forms the first piece of what is later known as the “Karnstein Trilogy,” for Ingrid Pitt’s character Mircalla Karnstein, often referred to as cinema’s first prominent example of the “lesbian vampire” archetype. A fusion between Hammer’s gothic horror sensibilities and the kind of “women in prison” exploitation mindset that would be popular in the U.S. later in the decade, these films are unabashedly sexualized but still retain enough horror bonafides to attempt occasional scares. The same attitude is also present in this year’s not one but two Hammer Dracula sequels, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula. Whereas the latter throws continuity to the wind entirely in a half-hearted reboot attempt, the former is more interesting and more odd, centering around a club of human, miscreant thrill-seekers who decide to resurrect Dracula just for the fun of it. Unsurprisingly, he then ends up killing most of them, again in a performance where Christopher Lee utters very little dialog. If you’re wondering why Lee kept accepting these roles while apparently being very reluctant to do so, the actor himself referred to the process as “emotional blackmail,” as studio executives and his agent routinely guilted the performer into accepting the jobs by saying that his refusal would be putting entire film crews out of work. Looking back on the series, it’s a shame that Lee often felt trapped in the role, but it’s also hard to think of anyone else who could have given Dracula such animal ferocity.
One final note: If you’re ever hosting a Halloween party, by all means queue up this year’s An Evening of Edgar Allen Poe, which simply features Vincent Price in a chair, narrating a bevy of Poe stories with his camp-o-meter turned up to 11. It sets the mood pretty beautifully.
1970 Honorable Mentions: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Witchhammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, And Soon the Darkness, Hatchet For the Honeymoon, An Evening of Edgar Allen Poe
The Film: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
Director: Dario Argento
After years of writing prominent westerns, war movies and even comedies in the Italian film market, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage announced the arrival of Dario Argento to the director’s chair, tackling that most iconic of all Italian film institutions: giallo. Building upon tropes established by Mario Bava and others, in films such as The Girl Who Knew Too Much or Blood and Black Lace, Argento began his experimentation with the sumptuous visual style that would become his signature, while throwing in a few storytelling innovations of his own—he also wrote the film’s script. With a dreamy, off-kilter score from Ennio Morricone, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage seems subtly demented from its opening moments, in a way that is quintessentially Argento.
Our viewpoint character is Sam, an American writer preparing to leave Rome when he happens to witness the late-night assault of a young woman by a man in a dark coat, wielding a knife. As Sam becomes a person of interest in the subsequent police investigation, first as a suspect and then as a prime witness, he comes to realize that the incident was only one in a series of stabbings, slashings and slayings of women in the area. And not only that, but the black-gloved killer (with his collection of long, cruel knives) is still on the loose, springing from the darkness to wallop people with hammers or carve them up with straight razors. There’s no shortage of blood, as you would no doubt expect.
Narratively, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage makes some interesting choices that seem geared to toy with the audience’s expectations. False leads and dead ends abound in the “evidence collection” phase of the film, encouraging largely fruitless speculation and frustration on the audience’s part. This sense of detachment is amplified by the fact that we as viewers don’t typically know the victims in any way—they’re simply introduced right as they’re killed, which makes the motive extra dubious, as we don’t know anything about them. The true answer, meanwhile, is ultimately hidden in plain sight—Argento simply relies on the audience’s trope dependence to make them misinterpret what he’s already shown them, and it works like a charm.
Ultimately, this is a nifty little giallo that took some logical next steps for the genre, even as Argento used it as a blank canvas to test some of the visual (and especially aural) cues he would later use to great effect in Deep Red, Opera and Suspiria. In particular, the opening scene of Sam, trapped in a glass enclosure and unable to help while a wounded woman crawls pitifully toward him, feels reflective of the nightmarish but beautiful filter through which Argento has always seen our world.
1971: The Devils
1971 is a year that continues the strong run of European horror output, while crystalizing the trend toward “extreme” horror at the same time with a bevy of films that deeply challenged censors and audiences alike. There are more roots of the quietly approaching slasher genre to be found here, as well as the debut of one of the greatest populist film directors of all time. There’s simply a prodigious amount of horror cinema in general, and greater output from the U.S. than in the last few years as well. The horror genre is as popular in this moment as it’s ever been, and inarguably more transgressive at this time than at any point in the past. More and more, horror cinema is coming to represent the deviant side of a cultural divide between “serious” film critics of the day and the thrill-seeking, supposedly deviant audience members who packed grindhouse theaters and kept the flow of pulp coming.
This year certainly doesn’t want for films that stirred up controversy, as The Devils is among the most scandalous horror pictures ever released, while Straw Dogs also caused a scene, leading to accusations that it (along with the likes of A Clockwork Orange, released a few months earlier) represented a new, disturbing wave of brutal violence in American film. Sam Peckinpah’s film in particular seemed to be misunderstood in its initial release, as contemporary reviews failed to appreciate the complex motives of its antagonists and the delicate progression of Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner from milquetoast academic to testosterone-crazed home defender. Straw Dogs is a film about difficult choices, and it doesn’t seem to offer any real opinion of its own on whether David’s choices in particular are the “correct” way, or the only way, that the ultimate confrontation could have gone down. We understand why he does what he does, but the audience’s personal detachment from the crippling affronts experienced by David (and especially by his wife) put us at a distance far enough removed to see alternate routes, or ways that violence might have been avoided—which only makes the killings seem more senseless.
At the same time, Mario Bava is experimenting with depictions of cinematic death that are meant to be consumed in a considerably less challenging, more titillating way, in his important proto-slasher, A Bay of Blood. In terms of structure, this is very nearly a true slasher film, sprinkling stalking and grisly kills (replete with bright red rushes of blood) among a cast of characters gathered at the titular bay. Several of its death scenes would be repeated almost exactly in Friday the 13th Part 2 in particular, most notably the sequence in which two young lovers in mid-coitus are simultaneously killed by a spear that impales both. The only thing that keeps A Bay of Blood in the giallo rather than slasher camp, in fact, is its focus on mystery and concrete, real-world motivations for the killings, which revolve around financial gain rather than demented sport. Still, it’s clear that the true slashers are almost upon us now.
1971 is also home to an array of other notable films, including Duel, the feature-length horror-thriller debut of Steven Spielberg, along with Vincent Price’s classic, campy revenge story The Abominable Dr. Phibes and another Cushing and Lee anthology film from Amicus, The House That Dripped Blood. Truly, there’s too much good stuff here to even list it all.
1971 Honorable Mentions: Straw Dogs, A Bay of Blood, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Duel, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Twins of Evil, The House That Dripped Blood, The Omega Man
The Film: The Devils
Director: Ken Russell
There’s little doubt that Ken Russell’s The Devils is among the most audacious historical dramas/horror films ever made, featuring striking performances, elegant cinematography, and yes—an incredibly depraved, sacrilegious stance toward the church. Even in its heavily edited state, it’s a film that still needs to be seen to be believed, and remains one that many film aficionados simply choose to ignore from a comfortable distance. The “uncut” version of The Devils, likewise, is quite difficult to lay one’s hands on, but it contains scenes that are all the more shockingly explicit and powerful. This is a film that truly redefined the nature of trying to provoke a reaction via outrage in cinema.
The Devils is based on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 text The Devils of Loudun, concerning a case of supposed mass demonic possession that struck a convent of Catholic nuns in the city of Loudun, France in the 17th century. The true root of the possessions was unsurprisingly a political one, as the royally backed governors of the region wish to tear down the city’s fortifications to prevent the local Protestant population from being able to fortify the city against the crown. Standing in their way is Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, who is betrayed by a jilted, hunchbacked nun who is secretly in love with him, and accused of crimes that include an array of supposedly devilish doings.
As Grandier, English star Oliver Reed gives a performance for the ages; a magnetic tour-de-force delivered with dramatic, Shakespearean overtones. Grandier is a self-obsessed and worldly man of the cloth, fallen from the pure of faith no doubt, but with the safety of the populace as his primary objective. Women are drawn to him, and understandably so—he possesses a rugged masculinity and commanding presence the Latvian Orthodox priests on Seinfeld would no doubt have termed “the Kavorka.” Every time Reed speaks, the people around him listen, and he holds the audience in rapt awe. Russell highlights this well, especially in one sequence as he cross-cuts back and forth between Grandier stirring up the townspeople and a duplicitous cardinal inciting the king against Grandier and the city of Loudun.
Actress Vanessa Redgrave, likewise, is stunning as the deeply repressed and pathetic sister Jeanne de Anges, the hunchbacked sister who eventually leads a crusade against Grandier, roping in the rest of the nuns along with her. Together, they’re forced to perform wild feats of hedonism as proof of their possession by the devil, in order to absolve themselves of responsibility for their behaviors. They play-act these behaviors with reckless abandon; pawns in the church’s game to dispose of Grandier and subdue the city. Redgrave emotes both guilty piety and a lust she knows she’ll never be rid of, and is quickly consumed by both.
The singular images of The Devils range from the profound to the patently absurd—at one point a man with a sword fights another one holding a stuffed crocodile—but they’re impossible to forget. Mountains of corpses tumble into pits, the result of horrific depictions of the agony of the plague. Disorienting fantasy and dream sequences openly mock sacred Christian imagery. It’s a true fever dream of a film, suffused in sweat, tears and mucous. If you feel the need to take a shower afterward, you’re likely not alone.
1972: The Night Stalker
This is another one of those years that is rife with thrillers bordering on the edge of horror, but in the case of films such as Deliverance or Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, we’re ultimately inclined to keep them out of the official “horror” genre. As for the rest of the year, many of the themes of the early 1970s continue to gather strength, including graphic violence, wanton sexuality and an increasingly exploitative mindset. There is certainly a feeling in the air that the genre is exploring a side of cinema that many viewers would have preferred to see kept out of the public eye entirely, which manifests in a moral blowback of sorts against horror movies.
In Italy, director Lucio Fulci, who already has two decades of directing experience under his belt at this time, begins to move in the direction of horror with the influential giallo film Don’t Torture a Duckling. Containing a rather scathing portrayal of the Catholic church that calls to mind last year’s The Devils (although nowhere near so depraved), Don’t Torture a Duckling follows a detective searching for a serial killer of children, and displays some of the touches that would become Fulci’s hallmarks in a series of supernatural horror films in the 1980s, especially his creative use of gore and strange death scenes. Along with Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Fulci would become one of the three biggest icons in Italian horror cinema.
All throughout Europe, the horror gravy train is moving at full speed. Amicus Productions in the U.K. has a particularly notable year in 1972, releasing not one but two of its signature horror anthologies, Asylum and the EC Comics-inspired Tales From the Crypt. The latter is a fun footnote in horror history for the fact that it may have been the first depiction of a killer Santa Claus, who appears in its best-known segment, “...And All Through the House,” far predating the considerable ruckus and outrage that would be stirred up by the likes of 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. Not to be outdone, Hammer also releases Vampire Circus, a heavily eroticized panoply of breasts and fangs that feels sadly like an older studio trying to keep up with changing appetites. Confirming that impression, meanwhile, is Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972, which bizarrely tries to transplant the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee vampire dynamic to the modern day, with tonally jumbled results. This more or less marks the end of the golden era of Hammer Horror, although there are still a few offerings to come.
This year is also home to the first in Spanish director Amando de Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” series, Tombs of the Blind Dead, which would set the tone for the deluge of post-Romero Italian and Spanish zombie cinema that would be coming down the pipe in a few years, as well as Wes Craven’s notorious rape-and-revenge feature The Last House on the Left.
1972 Honorable Mentions: Don’t Torture a Duckling, Tales From the Crypt, What Have You Done to Solange?, Asylum, Images, Vampire Circus, The Last House on the Left, Tombs of the Blind Dead, Dracula A.D. 1972, Horror Express
The Film: The Night Stalker
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Those who are aware of the legend of Kolchak: The Night Stalker tend to fall into one of two camps: Either they were regular network TV watchers in the early 1970s, or they were deeply passionate about The X-Files in the 1990s and 2000s. Fans of Chris Carter’s seminal sci-fi/horror investigation series know that the series was deeply indebted to the legacy of one Carl Kolchak, and actor Darren McGavin even made appearances on The X-Files as a character named Arthur Dale, referred to as “the father” of the X-Files program. But fans of The Night Stalker knew it was really a tribute to Kolchak, the hard-nosed newspaperman/investigator of the supernatural.
The Night Stalker is the rare TV movie inclusion into this project; a surprisingly effective, though tonally unusual and fast-moving horror story about a Las Vegas wire service reporter who stumbles onto a rash of killings that appear to be vampiric in nature. It’s an amalgam of disparate genre influences, playing in large portions like a police procedural drama, but peppered with Kolchak’s own colorful, film noir-style narration, like he’s a cross between Sam Spade and Rod Serling. The reporter’s relationship with his editor, meanwhile, is straight out of police shows and films of the era, with Kolchak as the “loose cannon” rogue cop and editor Vincenzo as the antacid-chewing, red-faced obstacle who says things like “I expect you to report, not come back with fairytales!”
As Kolchak, Darren McGavin—an actor primarily known to most modern audiences as “The Old Man” from A Christmas Story—is a delightfully sardonic presence. He’s a truly oddball character, a hard-drinking goofball who has the enthusiasm of a child when sticking it to the local authority figures, but also isn’t afraid to descend into the suspected lair of a vampiric serial killer with zero backup. He somehow manages to maintain a wide network of informants and friends who seem to like him against their own wills, while being petulant enough that he delights in correcting someone’s grammar while they’re in the middle of berating him. He is, suffice to say, the last character you’d expect to see pitted against a vampire, which gives The Night Stalker an aura that runs actively counter to contemporary vampire films from the likes of Hammer.
The vampire, too, has been updated here for the modern world in a way that is much more organic and realistic than the silliness of Dracula A.D. 1972. This vampire, one “Janos Skorzeny,” projects more of the vibe of desperate drug addict than an all-powerful creature of the night, putting himself in serious risk to attain blood on a nightly basis. He engages in car chases of all things with police, and lives in a messy hovel, which looks for all intents and purposes like an unkempt drug den. He’s powerful, shrugging off bullets and throwing men through fourth-story windows, but is simultaneously a pathetic figure who is unable to adapt to a world that is quickly leaving him behind.
Although the majority of the film concerns itself with the investigation and the pleasantly prickly performance of McGavin as Kolchak, The Night Stalker does have some genuine moments of fright as well. There are a few solid jump-scares sprinkled throughout, and things finally do get legitimately spooky in the film’s final third, as Kolchak creeps around the vampire’s lair, taking photos for his investigation. The suspense of these sequences is nicely drawn out, leading to a final confrontation that echoes the one between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in 1958’s Horror of Dracula. The classics, as they say, never truly go out of style.
1973: The Exorcist
Even if The Exorcist had somehow been all alone for 1973, it still would have been a big year for horror, but considering everything else that is also released this year, you have to call it one of the most prominent, important years in genre history. After a start to the decade that was dominated by European output—monster movies, giallo, sexploitation, etc.—this is the year that American horror comes screaming back, although it’s a prolific year for the U.K. horror industry as well. The quality is through the roof, as the year’s three top films—The Exorcist, The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now—would be very strong contenders to win any year in which they were released. It certainly feels like a breakthrough moment for psychological horror in particular, suggesting that the newly minted classics of the genre would achieve their status not necessarily via gore and exposed flesh, but by probing the human mind.
Of the other films released this year, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man looms the largest in the public eye, contributing what is considered by many to be the quintessential British horror movie. Christopher Lee shines as the regal Lord Summerisle, making the most of a rare opportunity to appear in a prominent horror film as something other than Dracula or a reimagined Universal monster. A key film for the idea of “pastoral” folk horror, the likes of Midsommar could hardly exist without The Wicker Man, a keen examination of the ideological and cultural divide between the old world and the modern one. With a notably dire ending that dares its audience to consider the real possibility of their own powerlessness, the film’s greatness managed to remain untarnished by the abysmal 2006 remake, now infamous for its many moments of unhinged Nicolas Cage bizarrity.
Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, meanwhile, somehow remains less familiar to casual horror fans than The Wicker Man, but it’s likely the more persistently disturbing of the two films. A dreamy, surrealistic examination of a marriage fracturing under the stress of grief, the film stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a couple who travel to Italy in an attempt to heal following the accidental death of their daughter. But as the two begin to experience nightmarish blurs of the past and the future as timelines collide, it becomes difficult to trust (or act on) any of their perceptions in a way that doesn’t make things that much worse. Like The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now stands out for its shocking ending, ranking among the most chillingly memorable reveals in the history of the genre.
And that’s just this year’s acknowledged masterpieces. We also have films such as the gleefully weird haunted house yarn The Legend of Hell House, the thespian revenge story Theater of Blood with Vincent Price, more Amicus anthologies like Vault of Horror, influential black vampire movie Ganja & Hess, dystopian people-eating nightmare Soylent Green and prime giallo such as Torso. Which is all to say: 1973 was one hell of a year for horror.
1973 Honorable Mentions: Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Legend of Hell House, Theater of Blood, The Night Strangler, The Vault of Horror, Sisters, Torso, The Crazies, Ganja & Hess, Soylent Green
The Film: The Exorcist
Director: William Friedkin
The most incredible thing about The Exorcist is the way this film has managed to retain its potency; its ability to truly shock and horrify an audience, almost 50 years after its initial release. So often proclaimed as the greatest horror film of all time—including in Paste’s own list of the 100 best horror films —it stands as a graven exception to the rule generally stating that horror films tend to lose some of their mystique and transgressive notoriety over the decades. There’s something innately wicked, something metaphorically canted about the images that Friedkin captured here. Even today, when you watch The Exorcist, it still occasionally feels like you’re inviting cosmic calamity upon yourself, like it’s a sin to even remove that Blu-ray from its case.
The Exorcist is of course the story of a mother, Chris MacNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn, and her daughter Regan, played by a disturbingly mature Linda Blair, who undergoes demonic possession and then the titular exorcism. It kicked off an incredibly prolific wave of imitators, from blaxploitation films like Abby to European rip-offs like Italy’s Beyond the Door, launching a full-fledged Satanic panic in the process, as evangelical audiences recoiled from the fact that the devil himself had not only come to cinemas—he earned a Best Picture nomination as well! But although the attempts to copy The Exorcist were numerous, none of the imitators came close to rivaling its primal power—they were uniformly lacking the creativity it demonstrated in displaying behaviors the audience would find deeply disturbing, and simultaneously lacked the spine-chilling performance of the afflicted Blair, the steadfast Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and wounded Father Karras (Jason Miller). This was not a formula that could simply be replicated for the grindhouse crowd.
With the benefit of repeat viewings, the other thing one notices while viewing The Exorcist is that it’s often scenes other than the famous possession and exorcism sequences that are the most deeply disturbing. In particular, Regan’s battery of hospital tests, including a freakishly accurate depiction of a cerebral angiography, hammer at the audience with dull blows of painful reality from an uncaring universe. It is incredibly uncomfortable to watch young Regan, strapped to a platform and stuck full of tubes, her eyes pleading for some kind of help or comfort, as her mother waits in another room, slowly unraveling—Burstyn gives an extremely vulnerable performance here as a woman pushed beyond all possible lengths of endurance. Furthermore, the hospital scenes are made only more skin-crawling to watch today when one is armed with the knowledge that the bearded technician appearing in them was none other than Paul Bateson, a confessed serial killer who was arrested in 1979. As if we needed something else to make us uncomfortable.
Tales of the public reaction to The Exorcist have understandably become the stuff of cinematic apocrypha. As hysteria about the film hit the mainstream, there were stories of people being driven insane by viewing the exorcism, or vomiting in the aisles, or simply keeling over with heart attacks from sheer fright. Some of those tales were no doubt their own form of covert marketing from the executives at Warner Bros., not too far removed from the stunts pulled by the likes of William Castle, but contemporary interviews with shaken audience members as they exited the film show you just how deeply it affected many Americans. In fact, watching those reactions, one starts to empathize with the poor souls who seem genuinely afraid their souls will be stolen next—and distrustful of the glassy eyed horror fanatics saying they loved the show and can’t wait to see it again. It makes it a bit easier to understand the vitriolic obscenity charges that kept the film from receiving a home video release in the U.K. until 1999.
In the end, The Exorcist was a monumental moment for the history of the American horror genre. It was the first mainstream horror film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and went a long way in establishing the idea of horror as a genre that was not mutually exclusive from critical acclaim and universal cultural relevance. Much as many would have liked to dismiss it out of hand as a sick aberration, The Exorcist was a clear sign of things to come.
1974: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
As we get into the mid-1970s, we’re presented with a year that isn’t quite as deep as those that preceded it, but still has an array of very ’70s classics to its name. Whether or not you think it’s appropriate to include the likes of Phantom of the Paradise in this listing, there’s few things more ’70s-tastic in horror than Larry Cohen’s killer baby movie, It’s Alive, which perfectly dates the era.
This is also a groundbreaking year for the arrival of a genre that would come to dominate the late ’70s and early ’80s: The slasher film. Finally, after describing so many movies such as Psycho, Peeping Tom, Blood and Black Lace or A Bay of Blood as “proto-slashers,” we can definitively say the first true slasher is here, and it’s called Black Christmas. Note: This year’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre also contains more than a few slasher elements, but the film doesn’t fit the tropes of the emerging genre nearly so snugly as Black Christmas.
Bob Clark, who would later, ironically go on to give us A Christmas Story, directed Black Christmas with inspiration drawn largely from the world of urban legends, and the tale of “the babysitter and the man upstairs” that would also serve as the basis for When a Stranger Calls in 1979. The story revolves around a sorority house, where the occupants have been receiving a series of bizarre and threatening phone calls, before girls begin to disappear. At the same time, composed and mature student Jess Bradford is dealing with her own relationship struggles, even as she begins to feel the eyes of a stalking presence on her. Portrayed with uncommon emotional strength by actress Olivia Hussey, Jess proved to be the foundation, in many ways, for the archetype that we later began to refer to as the “Final Girl.” At the same time, though, her individuality, self-assuredness and sexual independence place Jess in a different tier than the more damsel-fied or virginal Final Girls who would often follow in her wake. Beyond the characterization of Jess, however, Black Christmas is notable for its many other contributions to slasher canon: An anonymous, mentally deranged villain who kills for the sheer enjoyment of it; gruesome death scenes; a body count; a cast of nubile victims; POV shots from the killer’s eyes, and more. Perhaps surprisingly, the film didn’t generate an immediate wave of imitators—although there are more quasi-slasher giallo films in the next few years, the genre doesn’t explode into popularity in the U.S. until the sea-change moment of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978.
1974 is also home to one of the genre’s great comedies, Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ classic send-up of the Universal Monsters era, which contains far more direct inspiration from Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein than viewers who have never seen those movies would likely expect. Venturing out further, we also have the Romero-inspired Spanish/Italian production Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, inspired directly by the infamous serial killings of Ed Gein. Suffice to say, this is certainly a prominent year for “extreme” horror, and that’s before we’ve even discussed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
1974 Honorable Mentions: Black Christmas, Young Frankenstein, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, Dead of Night, Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter, It’s Alive, Madhouse, From Beyond the Grave
The Film: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Director: Tobe Hooper
In the annals of great horror movie taglines, you’ll have a hard time finding better than “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?” The phrase adorning posters for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—the official title is indeed “Chain Saw,” for whatever reason—managed to perfectly capture the taboo sensation of this scandalous film, and the feeling that even the audience might not make it out alive. Like The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw is a movie with a malevolent aura about it—its set pieces look infectious, as if you might catch tetanus through the screen. Unlike The Exorcist, though, the film doesn’t hold itself with a great deal of dramatic gravity. Rather, it seems to wallow in its own filth, and invites you to climb into the pen with it.
Joining this year’s Deranged as another film loosely based on the serial killings and necromantic perversions of the notorious Ed Gein, TCSM’s killers are an inbred family of backwoods, cannibalistic butchers who prey on anyone unlucky enough to stumble onto their patch of turf. There’s an entire familial structure here; one with some confusing hints at gender dysphoria among some of the members, but ultimately it’s really only important to know that these people want you dead, and inside their stomachs, although not necessarily in that order. Likewise, it’s the hulking Leatherface you’ll really want to be watching out for, with his titular chainsaw and his mask made of the dried skin of his victims.
Arriving in theaters less than two weeks before Black Christmas, it’s tempting to refer to TCSM as the first true slasher film, but its family/group dynamic of killers flies in fairly stark contrast to the classical, single killer model you expect in most slasher films. However, with that said, it does make contributions to the genre, from the use of power tools as weapons (where would The Driller Killer be without it?), to the hulking, masked figure of its most famous antagonist. There’s a whole lot of Leatherface in Jason Voorhees, that’s for sure.
In terms of tone, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre casts a uniquely sadistic and hopeless shadow. The deaths are brutally realistic and difficult to watch, aided by masterful sound design and gore effects. There are few sequences in genre history so stunningly, simply brutal as Leatherface bringing a hammer down on poor Kirk’s head with a dull thud, as the audience listens to his feet spasm on metal paneling before Leatherface throws the metal door shut with a bang. The whole sequence lasts only about 20 seconds, but it’s agonizingly realistic in presentation. The deaths of female characters such as Pam, on the other hand, are considerably more drawn out, as they are repeatedly tortured and taunted, made aware seemingly deliberately of their own powerlessness.
It gets a point across—watching this film is meant to be an ordeal, rather than a source of cheap laughs. Nobody is getting away unscarred—not Sally Hardesty, and certainly not the likes of you. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will have its pound of flesh, one way or another.
Compared with the heady days of the early 1970s, horror finally seems to be slowing down a little bit by the time we reach 1975. The insane output from Europe is beginning to ebb a bit—Hammer has just about run out of steam in the U.K., and giallo is beginning to lose a bit of its luster in Italy, although the genre will ebb and flow there in popularity well through the 1980s. There’s a few classics at the top of this list, but when looking at the whole field of honorable mentions, the lack of depth becomes much more apparent.
Jaws, obviously, is a major moment in populist film history—the coronation of Spielberg, and the birth of the idea of summer blockbuster season. Is it a horror film? Well, to the entire generation of bathers literally terrified to walk into the ocean past their ankles, it’s safe to say it was. It was so successful, in fact, at demonizing the great white shark that author Peter Benchley eventually came to rue his influence in world-wide shark-phobia, becoming a prominent marine conservation activist in the process.
The only film that can hold a candle to Jaws as an artistic accomplishment—certainly not at the box office, that’s for certain—would be Dario Argento’s Deep Red, a seminal giallo that catches the director at a perfect midpoint between his earlier proto-slashers and the supernatural horror he would soon unleash in the likes of Suspiria. This is a delightfully over-the-top murder mystery with numerous slasher elements and classic giallo style dressing, ‘ala the killer’s black leather gloves. It stands out largely for its kills, each of which are inventive and plain weird, focusing in on strangely intimate and painful details (like a man repeatedly having his mouth and teeth smashed against various household objects), which serves to make them that much more uncomfortable to watch. As he would on Suspiria, Argento collaborates with the art rock band Goblin for the film’s distinctive, electronically tinged soundtrack. Fun fact: The director discovered Goblin after failing to book none other than Pink Floyd for the job. Now that would have been something to hear.
Other prominent entries at our 1970s midpoint include the still-disgusting sexual sadism and torture seen in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, along with the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff seen in The Stepford Wives, the actual Body Snatchers remake still being a couple of years away. We also have David Cronenberg making his genre debut with Shivers, and the well-remembered TV horror anthology Trilogy of Terror. The latter is mostly referenced for its final story starring Karen Black, in which a woman is terrorized by a living, African “Zuni fetish doll” with razor sharp teeth, the image of which splits the difference between “adorable” and “hideous.” To those who think Child’s Play was the first killer doll story, check this one out.
1975 Honorable Mentions: Deep Red, Shivers, Trilogy of Terror, The Stepford Wives, Salò, Race With the Devil
The Film: Jaws
Director: Steven Spielberg
When you get right down to it, sharks hardly needed Steven Spielberg’s help to frighten the masses. Unlike vampires, or werewolves, or the bulbous-headed aliens of 1950s stock science fiction, a hungry shark represents a rational fear, should you somehow manage to encounter one on the open ocean. Moreover, sharks are frightening for the fact that, should you actually encounter one on its home turf, a human being is automatically at an absurd disadvantage in a face-to-jaws encounter. Their perfect symmetry—what Richard Dreyfuss refers to in this film as a “perfect eating machine”—highlights man’s own ill adaptation toward truly fighting his own battles. In this way, Jaws calls attention to our own species’ lack of guts—in the metaphorical sense, of course. We have plenty of guts, when it comes to being what Dreyfuss also described as “a hot lunch” in the same scene.
Of course, the presence of Steven Spielberg doesn’t hurt, either, when it comes to populating this tale with instantly memorable characters. And truly, Jaws is fully dependent on its wonderfully fleshed out characters. At the center there’s Brody—respected, empathetic, but occasionally indecisive, torn between the extremes of Hooper’s informed (but hyperbolic) prophesying and Mayor Vaughn’s arrogant, pigheaded (but financially sound) commitment toward keeping the beaches open. One side asks Brody to doom Amity Island’s economy. The other demands he place the townspeople in danger. And watching from the wings the whole time is Robert Shaw’s Quint, his face a perfect picture of disdain for everyone else on the island, waiting for Brody to finally give him leave to do what he knows needs to be done. The interplay between Brody, Hooper and Quint is particularly beautiful, as each approaches the island’s shark problem from a very different position of knowledge and empathy. It reaches its zenith in the much-quoted scene in the Orca’s cabin, where the three drunk men relate love stories and shark stories, culminating in Quint’s chilling recollection of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Few “horror” films are known for their powerful monologues—this is one of the exceptions.
The strength of Jaws’ characters was doubly important for the practical fact that the film’s animatronic shark bodies were so famously temperamental and perpetually on the fritz. As a result, the thought of the shark is always on the periphery of the audience’s attention, but until the final hunt we see its power only through the devastation it wreaks, whether it’s the ragdolled body of the swimmer in the opening scene or the massive bite marks in the sunken boat Hooper investigates. It manages to lull the audience into an expectation of never really seeing the shark in the flesh, which is gloriously shattered by its sudden appearance to Brody, making the shot one of cinema’s all-time jump scares. It’s the switch-throwing moment in Jaws—once the shark decides to make its presence known, displaying a disturbing degree of premeditated intelligence, we leave the brooding mystery of the film’s first half behind to focus entirely on a personal battle of man vs. nature.
And my, how effective is that shark, once we finally get to see it? It looms large in any kind of pantheon of cinematic “villains,” even if its behavior is simply meant to be predatory instinct—inaccurate to real life as that may be. Spielberg imbues the shark with a streak of malevolence that seems far more human than animal—there’s no good reason for it to be so hell-bent on destroying our protagonists, and yet it is anyway. It stands in for every aspect of life that would wish to see us dead. Has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for the inexorable slide toward our own personal demise, than Quint tumbling along the deck of the boat toward the gnashing mouth of the shark, kicking his feet in futility as the jaws clamp down on his legs and torso? It’s the moment when we lose all hope for the survival of Brody or Hooper—what can a mere human do against such a monstrous force of violence? The shark is like a god of the sea, punishing us for daring to even set foot in its domain.
As a template for the future of summer blockbusters, Jaws introduced less than ideal concepts to the industry as well—namely, a series of sequels that descend rapidly in quality, while being tied to whatever gimmicks are relevant at the time. Few film franchises ever illustrated sequel decay more effectively than Jaws, which starts sliding in Jaws 2 and only gets worse—much worse—from there. As for the original? It will never be challenged as the best “shark movie” of all time, but also stands as one of the greatest American films of the 1970s.
1976 serves up a heady mix of pulp, psychological and supernatural horror; a very ’70s stew indeed. Like several of the other recent years in this project, it’s toplined by multiple films that are considered classics of the genre, making choosing a #1 a bit more difficult than usual. It’s a case where you have some options, ranging from the Repulsion-esque descent into madness of Polanski’s The Tenant, to the pure creepiness of little Harvey Stephens as Damien in The Omen, to the seminal high school horror satire of Carrie, to the influential proto-slasher elements of Alice, Sweet Alice. Any of the four would be a defensible choice, but there can be only one—for us, it’s Carrie.
Of the three films in Polanski’s so-called “Apartment Trilogy,” The Tenant likely has the lowest profile. Structurally, it’s somewhat similar to his previous Repulsion, taking place largely within protagonist Trelkovsky’s (played by Polanski himself) dwelling spaces, but unlike Repulsion, the character’s disconnect from reality is far more social in nature, as he comes to believe that all the people within his life are joined in some kind of discriminatory cabal against him. The film has been theorized to capture the real-world anti-semitism experienced by Polanski’s Jewish family, who were subject to intense scrutiny for all their activities, exactly as Trelkovsky is perpetually harangued by his neighbors for seemingly minor greivances. So too does the film bear some psychic resemblance to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, in the sense that Trelkovsky is always being compared to the apartment’s previous tenant, and found wanting, eventually adapting his life into another person’s image, against his own will. It doesn’t always feel like a “horror” film during its entire runtime, but with sequences such as its infamous scream, The Tenant can lay claim to some suitably unnerving material.
The Omen, by contrast, is a film that gets by on style and an inherent sense of impending doom more than it does via plotting or performances—with the exception of the already mentioned Stephens, who was perfectly cast as a budding Antichrist. Written down on the page, the plot of The Omen sounds especially ludicrous, but presented on screen it instead comes off as apocalypticly dour. How else can one describe Damien’s fifth birthday, where the entertainment of clowns and carnival games is interrupted by the boy’s nanny, smile plastered on her face, joyfully hanging herself from a third floor window while children scream and cry? The intensely dramatic nature of the film—especially its Oscar-winning soundtrack from Jerry Goldsmith—can make it seem a bit hokey when consumed outside an era where “satanic panic” was running high, but David Warner’s famed decapitation by a sheet of wayward glass remains as gruesomely hilarious today as ever.
Outside of the heaviest hitters, 1976 also offers some depth, especially if you’re willing to expand the genre definition a bit. John Carpenter’s gory action film Assault on Precinct 13 is sometimes lumped into fold, although only one notable sequence truly feels like “horror.” Who Can Kill a Child? on the other hand, backs up The Omen and Alice, Sweet Alice, suggesting this year might be the #1 draft pick of “creepy kids” years for the genre, arriving several years before the similarly themed Children of the Corn took the concept to its (illogical) conclusion.
1976 Honorable Mentions: The Omen, Alice, Sweet Alice, The Tenant, Who Can Kill a Child?, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Burnt Offerings
The Film: Carrie
Director: Brian De Palma
Carrie is one of those films that was simply easier to make with fidelity in the New Hollywood era than it would be today, when Stephen King’s source material would be under even heavier fire for its antiquated gender politics and vengeance-driven mentality. A modern remake of Carrie would no doubt fail to accurately present the character of Carrie White in the first place, missing out on the genuinely and painfully gawky portrayal brought to the table by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 original, in favor of a character who comes across like the “hidden beauty” protagonist of a high school comedy such as She’s All That. Coming from a major studio, at least, a 2010s remake of Carrie would be a pointless endeavor.
Oh wait: There was a Carrie remake in 2013, although I wouldn’t blame you for having entirely forgotten it by now. Succeeding only in terms of bloodletting, this version with Chloë Grace Moretz was doomed from the start, for exactly the reasons mentioned above—its version of the character seems practically like a prom queen from her first moments, rather than an unassuming and unusual girl who is cruelly targeted by her uncaring peers.
Nor can any of the other versions of or sequels to Carrie ever recapture the dynamic that works so well between the chief performers of this film. Sissy Spacek’s plaintive performance is genuinely wounding—it’s very difficult to believe she was a 27-year-old playing a 16-year-old here, because she brings such vulnerability and instability to the character; an uncertainty over every word she utters and action she takes. You find yourself not only disgusted by how she’s treated but consistently enraged on her behalf, not just at the likes of P.J. Soles, pelting her in the bathroom with tampons, but with the mother who allowed her daughter to navigate the waters of high school without any information to prepare her for the challenges of puberty. As Margaret White, meanwhile, Piper Laurie is an unholy terror in the guise of a holy one, and even her attempts to care for her daughter help the audience to understand how dangerous she would be once she discovers the true nature of Carrie’s gifts. After all, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Ultimately, Carrie is among the most empathic of the Stephen King works that would go on to receive film adaptations, despite being the very first to do so. Spacek’s performance creates a genuine, diffident young woman who has been damaged in truly serious ways, and even if she hadn’t been armed with telekinetic powers, one is led to conclude that she probably would have snapped one day all the same. Perhaps, instead of a bucket of blood raining down on her head at prom, it would have been when she was dumped by a boyfriend, or fired from a job, or (most likely) confronted one times too many by her abusive, withered mother. King merely gave Carrie an unusually strong bag of tricks to use in her inevitable retaliation. The world, he would likely say, had it coming.
The horror genre revels in one of its most surreal years in 1977, fully throwing itself into the zeitgeist of 1970s experimental cinema. There’s no shortage of quality offerings here, but few that you would call traditional or classical—it’s a decidedly weird and offbeat lineup from start to finish, as even the horror genre is really reflecting the New Hollywood spirit at this point. Many of the genre’s notable auteur types are releasing notable films here: David Lynch, George Romero, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Wes Craven, Mario Bava, David Cronenberg and more. In fact, looking just at that list of directors, you might assume that 1977 ranks among the greatest years in horror history, but most of those releases are typically considered “minor” works of their directors—it’s ultimately a good year rather than an all-time one.
With that said, any year containing Lynch’s Eraserhead has a certain weird mojo going for it. Ascending to a status that essentially makes it the unofficial patron saint of surrealist body horror, it’s a film that defies attempts at categorization and thematic analysis. You can interpret the disturbing images in Eraserhead in so many ways—societal rejection of the individual; fear over the burden of responsibility and negligence; criticism of the pacifistic or fatalist mindset—ultimately, your opinion will likely reflect which aspects of the film you find most unnerving. But rest assured, you will be unnerved, whether it’s by the explicit use of nightmarish imagery or the masterfully subtle application of low-level distorted sounds, hums and drones that occur throughout. Thanks to its sound design in particular, watching Eraserhead is a bit like experiencing a visualized migraine headache.
Japan also gets in on the surrealist fun in 1977 with quintessential “midnight movie” Hausu/House, a film that is often described off hand as “like Jaws, except the shark is a house.” A film modeled after that description in a literal way would no doubt be some kind of farce, but those who have seen Hausu know it’s a significantly more potent kaleidoscope of colorful insanity. The plot is simple—a group of schoolgirls go to a house, and it murders them—but the images are hallucinatory and intensely psychedelic, rather than legitimately frightening or self-serious. Home to flying heads, animated cats and the best piano-based death scene in horror film history, there’s nothing else quite like it. Surprising at times in its pastoral beauty, and then guffaw-worthy for its silliness moments later, Hausu is a film that begs to be seen with a large crowd of neophytes who are ready to be taken on a trip.
Elsewhere, gritty, violent horror is the theme of the day, as Wes Craven unleashes the sadistic The Hills Have Eyes, while Cronenberg serves up an eroticized body horror combination of vampire and zombie tropes in Rabid. George Romero, meanwhile, crafts what is often considered one of his best, but most perennially underseen works, Martin. A treatise on identity, delusion, sex and violence, Martin is the story of a young man who may or may not be a vampire—Romero plays it coy in ever revealing whether the kid is 84 years old, as he believes, or just a mentally disturbed young man. That ambiguity is key to keeping the audience’s attention, as a definitive answer to the film’s central question would irreparably transform it into either a gritty, urban vampire flick or an ultra-depressing psychological drama. Instead, Martin operates as both at times, making us unsure of how to process the reactions that society has toward Martin—is he a monster that needs to be staked, or a sick boy who needs antipsychotic medication? Horror exists in the constant doubt as to which actions one should take.
One last fun note: 1977 gives us the most prominent example of a horror-ish premise that desperately needs modern, big-budget reexamination: “All animals vs. all humans.” This year’s Day of the Animals is a laughable attempt to execute on that shower thought of a plot, but hey, you at least get a shirtless Leslie Nielsen fighting a bear. This is exactly as awesome/stupid as it sounds.
1977 Honorable Mentions: Eraserhead, Rabid, Martin, Hausu, The Psychic, The Hills Have Eyes, Shock, The Sentinel
The Film: Suspiria
Director: Dario Argento
The career of Dario Argento can essentially be compartmentalized into eras: The writer era, the giallo era, and the supernatural era. There’s a little bit of overlap, certainly, and the structure begins to fall apart in the later years of Argento’s career—as do the films from the 1990s onward, if we’re being honest—but the idea of “three eras” nicely dovetails with Argento’s most famous creation, the “Three Mothers” first seen in Suspiria. This trio of powerful, absolutely wicked witches lead human covens around the world, providing a rich bed of mythology on which Argento works his visual magic, first in Suspiria and then in 1980’s Inferno and 2007’s inessential Mother of Tears. Of the three, though, it’s Suspiria that continues to stir the imagination of filmmakers worldwide; the film that marked the start of Argento’s supernatural horror phase.
To be certain, there are few films in the genre with such an immediately distinctive sense of visual flair. Suspiria is stylized in the extreme, eschewing naturalistic presentation of the world in favor of dreamlike (and then nightmarish) expressionism. Its light sources appear out of the darkness seemingly of their own accord, throwing up huge splashes of primary colors that can seemingly be recognized only by us, the viewer, rather than the characters on screen. To the eyes of young American dancer Suzy Bannion, she’s entered a world that is ruthlessly competitive and physically demanding, yes, but it’s still a world she recognizes as her own personal reality. To the viewer, on the other hand, the film’s visuals alone imply that we have traveled through the looking glass, and into a world of sadistic fantasy. As writer Astrid Budgor put it, describing Suspiria for Paste’s list of the 100 best horror films of all time, the film “makes gorgeousness its primary concern.”
That isn’t to say there aren’t a few effectively terrifying setpieces. The killings in the film’s opening moments tend to get the most attention in horror genre clip reels, but it’s the fate of blind pianist Daniel that most perfectly captures the beautiful interplay between Argento’s direction and his use of visuals, sound and the score by frequent collaborators Goblin to achieve a state of unbearable tension before the big payoff. As Daniel strolls into a huge, deserted plaza, we already know that something bad is about to happen to him. Goblin’s score builds to a crescendo as the blind man and his seeing eye dog realize that something is amiss, calling out challenges that reverberate off the silent statues. The camera dips behind a pillar, suggesting that some sinister force is eyeing the man from afar. And then … well, the fact that Argento still finds a way to end the sequence in a surprise speaks to a master at the height of his powers. The whole scene is a masterclass in suspense, as are the majority of the famed “last 12 minutes.”
It’s a testament, likewise, to the lasting power of Argento’s Suspiria that a remake 42 years later would attract a talent the size of director Luca Guadagnino to provide a sense of visual iconoclasm that could stand up in terms of personality to the original, without attempting to actively replicate it. At this, it’s a rare case where a remake largely succeeds. The film is not without its issues in terms of pacing and plotting, but a lack of ambition certainly isn’t among its flaws. Like Argento’s original, it refuses to have its weirdest impulses constrained, and it’s better for it.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.