Do you wonder about the origins of the cinematic horror?  Are you curious about the evolution of vampire films, zombie films, or the other subgenres?  Do you just want to be entertained by actors no longer breathing?  Classic horror movies are a great place to start.

The films that follow were pivotal contributions to the genre and helped it evolve to its current state.  There is no such thing as an original spark of brilliance.  The ‘genius’ we appreciate in story and direction is always built on a foundation of earlier works.  When we say something is ‘original’ what we really mean is that it is a non-hackneyed transition point.  Every film is a product of previous works, but some directors weave earlier elements together in such a way that they appear as ‘original’ threads in and of themselves and stand alone as masterpieces – taking the genre in a direction previously ignored. The two most pivotal transition points were probablyPsycho (1960) and The Exorcist (1973).  In deciding where to draw the line between classic and contemporary horror, I chose the latter.   Psycho was an unprecedented milestone, but I found its foundation too limiting and horror classics of the 1960s introduced many essential elements of the contemporary genre.

So, which classic horror films should you take the time to enjoy?  These are John Strands’ picks for  I present them chronologically and highlight the gems in each, but if you want to jump ahead to how they measure up to each other – numbered and scored according to originality (most cleverly stolen ideas), story, scares, gore and creepy theme – jump to the end.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) is pure brilliance even by today’s standards.  Released in Germany, the impetus for its disturbing nature stemmed in part from the unfavorable conclusion of the most devastating war in the history of Europe (World War I) the previous year.   A MUST SEE FOR ALL FANS OF HORROR.*

Nosferatu movie poster

Nosferatu (1922) is also a product of German silent cinema.  It is the first on screen depiction of the undead and granddaddy of all vampire movies.  Although not as original as Cabinet, it infused the genre with a richer core with its introduction of make-up effects. *

Dracula 1931 movie poster

Dracula (1931) was the first authorized silverscreen depiction of the Bram Stoker classic and film for which horror actor mainstay, Bela Lugosi, is best known.  It leaves behind the silent era and its grainy photography and brings vampires to life in a way that allows for the first jump-out-of-your-seat scares.

King Kong 1933 movie poster

King Kong (1933).  Hitler’s favorite movie!  Okay, so that is not much of a selling point.  But the favorite movie of one of the most despicable human being’s to ever exist probably appeals to a twisted sense of curiosity in some of us – something common among horror freaks.  The original monster movie is Golem (1920), which features a supernatural being conjured by oppressed Jews to wreak havoc on gentiles.

The Body Snatcher poster

The Body Snatcher (1945). From Frankenstein to a crypt dwelling mummy, Boris Karloff is famous for his portrayal of supernatural creatures in the 1930s and 1940s.  Yet, his most disturbing role is that of John Gray in this cinematic breakthrough.  Based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story by the same name, the film revolves around the unseemly business of illegally acquiring cadavers in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Bad Seed movie poster

The Bad Seed (1956).  John Gray may have marked the turn towards human monsters, but this film demonstrated just how unnervingly sharp the angle of that turn could be.  Predating Psycho by four years, Norman Bates is, ironically, much easier to stomach than this killer.

The Horror of Dracula

The Horror of Dracula (1958)  The film is low budget and there are lingering questions that are never answered, but it is truly a horror milestone for two reasons: 1) It was a successful remake that revitalized the old monsters by capitalizing on sensational imagery and plot twists; 2) The film demonstrated the powerful effects of full color gore – complete with a couple of very bloody kill scenes.  Following The Horror of Dracula’s success, Hammer Horror successfully franchised this money-making concepts in remakes of other classic monster tales.

Psycho horror movie poster

Psycho (1960).  Although, Bad Seed explored psychopathy in a manner never before undertaken in cinema, Hitchcock demonstrated how the phenomenon could scare audiences beyond what was thought possible for a film.  Psycho shattered the ceiling of creepy themes and disturbing story lines – laying the groundwork for all cinematic killers.  Whether your preference is for superhuman slashers such as Jason, or the more diabolical Hannibal, they all are the perverted offspring of Hitchcock’s knife-wielding madman, Norman Bates.

Village of the Damned Poster
Village of the Damned (1960).  1960 was a banner year for horror.  Although, not as groundbreaking as PsychoVillage of the Damned brought sci-fi horror to a new level of originality.  An English town is possessed by an alien force that impregnates all women of child-bearing age.  Each gives birth to blonde-haired children with piercing eyes.

Black Sunday Movie Poster
Black Sunday (Mask of the Demon) 1960.  A classic not fully appreciated by the English-speaking world.  It was one of the first Italian horror films – combining gothic legend with an unprecedented amount of gore.   Witches/vampires (they are the same in this legend) rise from the dead to feed on the living in 19th century Moldova (between Russia and Romania).

Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls (1962) explored the boundary between the living and the dead in a way never before attempted.  This independent gem is not widely hackneyed and thus has appeal for contemporary audiences.

The Birds Poster

The Birds (1963) lifted gore effects to heights on par with advances in scares and creepy themes.  In classic horror, Hitchcock deserves at least two mentions and although his seminal work must be considered Psycho, the blood and pecked out eyes depicted in full color in The Birds.

Rosemarys Baby

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)   The film was a breakthrough in its depiction of a woman’s struggle between her traditional role and one of empowerment, as in the end, she is left to fend for herself and become her own savior.  It is probably the first modern psychological horror film and capitalizes on our fear of betrayal by those around us – reminding us that we are only able to rely on ourselves… If that.

Night of the living dead poster

Night of the Living Dead (1968). If any zombie lover has not seen the original – GET OFF YOUR ASS AND PUT IT IN YOUR QUEUE. Romero combines the effects of Black Sunday and the desperation of Carnival of the Souls to create an apocalyptic glimpse into a world where the rotting corpses of the dead walk amongst the living.  Although without the vividness of the zombie effects he would employ in Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, the film was a breakthrough in possibility – creating the most grotesque images since Nosferatu. Considered sensational at the time and still formidable by contemporary standards, Night of the Living Dead is also probably the most creative independent horror film ever – single-handedly giving birth to the zombie subgenre without directly drawing from any literature.  Although, the first film appearance of zombies was in White Zombie (1932), they were possessed and controlled by a cunning Haitian sorcerer as part of a Vodou ritual.  Romero adapted that concept to all the dead without a mastermind in control – just blind instinct – and in the process created the reason many of us became interested in horror.

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