Movie Marathon: Horror Films (Pre-1970s)
In honor of Halloween 2018, I decided to watch a bunch of old, pre-1970s horror films. I’ve always been a big fan of horror films, although I’ve shamefully ignored too many of the “classics” in favor of newer examples of the genre. Thus, I wanted to take the opportunity to go back and watch a bunch of earlier horror films — some of which I’ve seen before (a long time ago) but most of which I’d never seen — just to see what I’d been missing.
The Rankings (Worst to First)
For this particular movie-marathon, I watched 31 pre-1970s horror films (i.e. one per day). For your convenience, I’ve ranked them below (from “worst” to “best”) — although, to be perfectly honest, I actually enjoyed watching all of them to one degree or another. Enjoy!
#31: The Bat (1959) – It’s sorta unfair to include The Bat on a horror list, though it’s often grouped with “horror,” because it really feels more like a crime-thriller. A well-made film with some fun performances from Vincent Price (surprise!) and Agnes Moorehead, you can sense that it was based off a play from the dialogue and the ways that characters interact (weirdly enough, in the way that they enter/exit scenes). That said, the killer — who is the eponymous “The Bat” — manages to pull-off an outfit consisting of a velvet body-suit + actual suit + fedora hat + razor-sharp claw (see picture above), which isn’t an easy look.
#30: The Mummy (1932) – Watching the Universal Monster flicks as a kid, The Mummy was always one of my least favorite, and, unfortunately, it still holds that “honor.” There are some creepy shots of Boris Karloff in the title role, but there’s less “mummy” here than you’d expect, resulting in a movie that feels more like a romance (doomed romance, of course) than a real horror film.
#29: Phantom of the Opera (1943) – A remake of a remake of a novel, this version of Phantom has the added distinction of being a horror film without…well…horror. I like Claude Rains as an actor, but he just doesn’t bring the same grotesqueness or terror to the role that we get from Lon Chaney’s classic portrayal. That said, Phantom is one of the “prettiest” of the Universal Monster films to look at, but it feels more like a musical or period-piece than an actual horror film.
#28: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) – I’m mostly unfamiliar with the plot of Victor Hugo’s famous novel, though I know some of its broad strokes. I was surprised to discover that this silent-film, from the early 1920s, was as long as it was — basically, a full-length feature-film, which I wouldn’t have necessarily expected from the time-period (though I’m certainly no expert). Lon Chaney is stupendous here as Quasimodo (the “hunchback” from the title), and there are some genuinely beautiful and upsetting moments — particularly a scene where Quasimodo is lashed — that are still resonant today. Unfortunately, the film isn’t as interesting anytime Chaney’s off-screen, hence this ranking.
#27: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) – I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the first time a couple years ago, and I enjoyed the novella quite a bit — especially considering (if I’m remembering correctly) that Stevenson just wrote the story pretty quickly while sick to make some coin. This film is often considered one of the great existent horror silent-films, in large part to John Barrymore’s performance, which really is pretty good (particularly the physicality that he brings to Hyde). That said, the film feels bloated at 80ish minutes and suffers when Hyde’s not around causing problems. Worth seeing once, though, if you’re into films and specifically silent-films.
#26: The Terror (1963) – A movie so “good” that it’s listed under 4-5 different titles, The Terror stars Boris Karloff and a very young Jack Nicholson and was made by director Roger Corman using preexisting sets from another film he’d just completed. Interestingly, Francis Ford Coppola also directed some scenes for this film, so that’s cool, I guess. My favorite part is when a falcon gouges out someone’s eyes and then they stumble off a cliff. That’s something…
#25: White Zombie (1932) – Regarded by some critics as the “earliest” zombie film of all time, White Zombie offers a depiction of zombies more The Serpent and the Rainbow than George Romero. Thus, some will be disappointed by the general lack of brain-eating in this movie. That said, it does feature Bela Lugosi staring directly at the camera a LOT (see picture above) and making apparently hypnotic hand-gestures. Weirdly enough, there is some charm to watching the greatest to ever do it (i.e. the greatest to stare directly at the camera for long periods of time, repeatedly) do what he does best.
#24: The Day of the Triffids (1963) – There’s a meteor or a comet or something. Pretty much everyone goes blind all around the world. Lots of disaster-film type stuff happens, where airplanes are falling out of the sky and trains are de-railing and whatnot. Oh, and there are also giant walking plants that eat people, which is such a pain in the ass (as always). For some reason, this film has a bit of a cult-following, which I don’t quite “get,” although it’s decent enough and silly fun.
#23: Metropolis (1927 / 1984) – So…for a bit of off-the-wall fun, I decided to watch Metropolis. BUT…not just any version of Fritz Lang’s silent-film classic; rather, this was the 1984 cut made by music producer Giorgio Morodor. And it’s totally, totally, totally ridiculously strange — ha ha! Morodor and his crew colorized portions of the film and added subtitles, while also (and this is the “best” part) contributing a 1980s synth-score and creating a random soundtrack by folks like Freddy Mercury, Pat Benatar, Billy Squier, Adam Ant, and others. [I actually don’t mind the synth score, as it sorta weirdly works at times. The rest of the soundtrack, though? Um…not so much.] This version of Metropolis gets a TON of shit from film purists and cinephiles because of the artistic license that Morodor and company took. But there are also some positives here: I actually like that they speed-up the frame-rate, as the movie hums along at a better and brisker pace here. Also, the film still looks fantastic; and they actually managed to create the most complete version of the film that we had prior to this decade. Overall, I probably enjoyed it more than most, but you’ve got to be willing to just roll with the weirdness of watching silent-film actors against a backdrop of Pat Benatar’s vocals. *shrug*
#22: Dementia 13 (1963) – Francis Ford Coppola’s directorial debut, Dementia 13 has a sorta convoluted plot that involves family betrayal, axe murders, madness / psychosis, dolls / doll-making, maybe ghosts (?), etc. It’s not a great film, but there are some genuinely creepy moments and memorable shots — e.g. a tense hunting scene, an effectively unnerving night-swimming scene, and so forth. Of special note here is Patrick Magee’s performance as a really wacky (and, honestly, pretty unprofessional) family doctor, as he brings a very engaging weird-energy to the film. Apparently, this was remade quite poorly last year, which is a shame because I could actually see this having potential for a remake with the right director / cast, as the “bones” are here for something memorable. Solid pulp film that sometimes excels.
#21: The Tingler (1959) – Sorry to report that I felt no tingles during my viewing of The Tingler. This movie — directed by William Castle and starring Vincent Price — is so stupid that it’s admirable. A monster that can be defeated when its victims scream does not a very effective monster make. It’s Castle at his most B-movie-ish: The film opens with him warning the viewer about the contents of the film; at one point, Price talks directly to the audience and urges them to scream; and apparently Castle rigged certain seats in theaters to vibrate and buzz to simulate “the tingle.” *sigh* It’s so dumb, but I admire its commitment to spectacle.
#20: The Invisible Man (1933) – I think The Invisible Man works best if you watch it as horror-comedy; after all, the movie shines when Claude Rains (as The Invisible Man) gesticulates and giggles madly while terrorizing a small town. The film is very well made by director James Whale, a horror icon. And the costuming — notably with the Invisible Man — is great, which is one of the reasons why the film is most enjoyable when you’re able to actually see Rains rather than just hear his disembodied voice.
#19: Bluebeard (1944) – There’s a lunatic killer in Paris strangling a bunch of beautiful women. Surprise! It’s the charming, good-looking, seemingly kind portrait-painter / puppeteer with an uncontrollable urge TO KILL. This might be more a “terror” film than a “horror” one, technically. The most interesting part of this film is the performance by John Carradine (as the killer); it sorta feels like he’s the one character-actor in a movie with a bunch of classical-actors. Director Edgar G. Ulmer actually crafts a pretty solid movie here — apparently, he was “that guy” you’d ask to make a really shitty movie on a shoestring budget but who would secretly make a pretty good film, all things considered.
#18: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – A classic more “important” than “good” in my estimation. It also has the dishonor of starring a Nazi sympathizer (Werner Krauss) in the title role, which is, you know, bad. The sort of film in which you will undoubtedly spend more time watching the bizarre German Expressionist background and set-design than actually paying attention to anything that the people are doing. That said, there is a pretty fun “twist” at the end that I wouldn’t expect from a film made in 1920.
#17: The Haunting (1963) – People really love The Haunting, I think, because of its connection to the acclaimed novel by Shirley Jackson (i.e. The Haunting of Hill House). While I’ve read several of Jackson’s short stories, I’ve not read this novel, so I have no loyalties to the source-material. Robert Wise directs this, so the film looks fantastic; and Julie Harris’s performance as a tortured psychic within a malevolent house is utterly captivating. But the script here is pretty terrible, as there is soooo much voiceover — the effect being that the characters tell us what they’re thinking/feeling all the time, which really lessens the effects of the scares. With a better script and these same actors and this same director, The Haunting would be an all-time great film.
#16: The Last Man on Earth (1964) – Unlike aforementioned movies like Phantom of the Opera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Haunting, etc. — all great-looking films — The Last Man on Earth LOOKS like shit. Based on Richard Matheson’s famous novel, which was later remade into The Omega Man and again as I Am Legend, this movie was clearly made on the cheap. To save money, they shot in Italy and hired mostly Italian actors who couldn’t really speak English and then dubbed over their lines very poorly. Still…there’s something that’s legitimately unnerving that the “vampires” (???) show up at Vincent Price’s house every night, banging on the windows and moaning out his name — just to fuck with him. And the dramatic “twist” that happens near the film’s conclusion (a twist which comes from Matheson’s novel, I guess) encourages the audience to reevaluate everything that they thought they knew about the narrative and these characters. In a reversal of my comment on Wise’s The Haunting, this particular film is one that has a script but is held back by its production values.
#15: Nosferatu (1922) – One of the most influential horror films ever made and also one of the most famous of the surviving silent films, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu borrows heavily from Bram Stoker’s novel but with some modifications and flourishes here and there. Undeniably full of iconic shots, the film is paradoxically gutted by the brilliance of Max Schreck’s performance as the vampire Count Orlak. Schrek is so good in the role that the film definitely drags whenever he’s not on-screen. Inspired a Werner Herzog remake (Nosferatu the Vampire), an amusing historical/horror re-imagining (Shadow of the Vampire), and one of the scariest Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes from my childhood (“The Tale of the Midnight Madness”). The gift that keeps on giving.
#14: Freaks (1932) – I’m not smart enough to weigh-in on the degree to which Freaks is an “offensive” film, as it’s difficult for me to decipher — having read some reviews — whether folks are more upset about the ways these characters are depicted OR more upset that a movie would dare make them the protagonists of a major-studio motion-picture (or some combination of both). Just on a cinematic level, I found it to be a captivating film full of memorable shots and interesting directorial choices. To be honest, Freaks doesn’t really “feel” like a horror film for about 95% of its run-time. But then the film’s climactic scene happens, and it’s arguably the greatest and most horrifying single scene on this entire list. And interestingly enough, apparently the version that we have now is the toned-down version of the climax, which makes it all the more horrifying in the imagination.
#13: Dead of Night (1945) – I’m a sucker for anthology films — especially horror anthologies — but there aren’t that many truly good ones. Dead of Night is sorta the “classic” of the horror anthology films. Much of the plot involves people sitting around a fire and telling spoooooky stories. [There’s more to it than that, but I won’t give away the big twist.] If you’ve ever read any British horror from early-to-mid 20th century, this definitely has that feel to it — not “scary” so much as “unnerving” and all about atmosphere. The film’s best scene is near the end, when a certain quasi-(in)animate object slowly comes to life. Not my favorite horror anthology, but it’s definitely a good one that still surpasses many/most of the anthology films that would follow.
#12: House on Haunted Hill (1959) – A fun flick from B-movie maestro William Castle and starring horror icon Vincent Price. I’d always thought that House on Haunted Hill was a cheap rip-off of Jackson’s aforementioned novel, The Haunting of Hill House (given that the titles are virtually identical). But apparently it really was — believe it or not — an honest-to-god coincidence. In some ways, this is more of a suspense/mystery film than a horror one, which we learn as the plot progresses, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. At one point, everyone in the haunted house gets a gun because guns are, as we all know, the most effective defense against ghosts. Yep, it’s those sorts of choices that make House on Haunted Hill a great time.
#11: Cat People (1942) – I like the performances in this film — particularly Simone Simon as the main character — and the direction by Jacques Tourneur is fun and atmospheric (if a bit heavy on the symbolism at times). And there’s some interesting stuff here about marriage, repression, female sexuality, etc. So why isn’t this higher on the list? Because…where are all the cat people? The name of the movie’s not Cat PERSON. It’s not Shadows on the Wall and Ominous Purring. *sigh* I need more cat people in Cat People!
#10: The Wolf Man (1941) – When I was a kid and watching the classic Universal Monster movies for the first time, I remember that The Wolf Man was always my favorite one. Although it’s no longer my favorite, I do still like this film — not in spite of but because all its weirdness (in terms of plot, character, set-design, costuming, etc.) that doesn’t really make any sense whatsoever. Why does the Wolf Man strangle his victims? Why does the Wolf Man look like a hairy man, but the werewolf that attacks him looks like a dog? Do you really expect anyone to believe that Lon Chaney Jr. is the son of Claude Rains? Ha ha! But the transformation scene is great and there are some fantastically campy performances, so it’s a film that everyone should see at some point.
#9: Carnival of Souls (1962) – Let’s start with the negative: Carnival of Souls is too long — it could’ve been just as effective minus 20 minutes of cuts here and there. That said, it also features some of the creepiest and most memorable imagery of any film on this list — particularly Herk Harvey (who also directed) as the “Man” who haunts our main character. And unlike the aforementioned Cat People (that film of the misleading title!), we actually get to SEE the “carnival of souls” in this movie, and it’s phenomenal!
#8: The Uninvited (1944) – If White Zombie is considered by some as the first “zombie” movie, many regard The Uninvited as the first “ghost-horror” film — as, up to this point, cinematic ghosts were either hallucinations or played for laughs. In many ways, The Uninvited feels like an update on classic gothic horror — i.e. the mansion overlooking the sea, some complicated family dynamics, mysterious noises and chills, erratic animal behavior, the odd curse here-and-there, etc. Most of the cast play their roles pretty well — particularly Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, who effectively capture a sibling relationship that really feels like it has a history pre-dating the narrative. While the “twist” here is a little obvious too early, The Uninvited is still an enjoyable and engaging experience nonetheless, resulting in a ghost movie that holds up remarkably well nearly 75 years later.
#7: Frankenstein (1931) – One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading Mary Shelley’s deservedly influential novel Frankenstein for the first time is realizing just how different the novel is from the classic representation of the monster — which is what we get here, i.e. Boris Karloff’s stiff movements and indecipherable moanings (literally the opposite of the agile and eloquent monster from Shelley’s book). Instead of detracting from the film, however, I think it actually points to the brilliance of Karloff’s performance and James Whale’s directing — that they’re able to basically create THE iconic representation of the Monster/Creature despite the obvious and enormous differences from the source-material. Perhaps the most emotionally poignant of the Universal Monster movies, Frankenstein remains a fun and beautiful classic.
#6: Dracula (1931) – Unlike Shelley’s Frankenstein, I don’t really care for Stoker’s Dracula (as a novel), largely because of its structure — though there are certainly aspects of the book that I think are genuinely disturbing. The character of Dracula has resulted in many great performances over the years — e.g. Max Schreck (sort of), Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman, etc. While many critics today look at Bela Lugosi’s performance in the role as being sort of kitschy, I actually really like it. His Hungarian accent is in full-effect here and marks him as the “Other” once he arrives in London, and his memorable camera-staring captures the hypnotic allure he holds over his victims. (Of course, the sexual undertones are largely downplayed here, but it was 1931 so…) Lugosi’s delivery struggles through the dialogue, but it’s an effectively deliberate pace — whenever he says “Oh, I don’t drink……..wine,” the pregnant pause there kills me. It’s great.
#5: Black Sunday (1960) – Oooh, boy! Mario Bava’s Black Sunday — also often known as The Mask of Satan for reasons that become clear very early on in the film — earns its reputation as one of Italian cinema’s most influential horror films from the opening scene, where a writhing Barbara Steele is convicted of witchcraft and brutally executed. [As a result, I’d expected this to be a witchcraft film, but it really feels more like a vampire / zombie flick.] Steele’s performance is great here, as she oozes a sort of macabre sexuality and pleasure from enacting her revenge. And Bava’s filmmaking feels (somehow) at once expertly crafted and sorta cheap/pulpy, simultaneously. One of the biggest surprises for me, as I hadn’t seen this film prior to this marathon and was entertained throughout.
#4: Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – After the success of the original Frankenstein (in addition to The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man), James Whale agreed to direct Bride of Frankenstein only if he was given full and total creative-control. The result is a phenomenally strange film and one of the greatest sequels of all time. You do have to persevere a bit through the first 10-12 minutes, which involve a prologue from Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, & Lord Byron as well as mostly recap/connective tissue to the previous film. However, once the wickedly delightful Dr. Pretorius (played by Ernest Thesinger) shows up, the film hums along for its remainder. Here, Karloff’s Monster is shown to be even more violent but also more lonesome — creating a largely sympathetic and increasingly “human” figure. The eponymous Bride, despite only appearing in the film for about 5 minutes, leaves an indelible mark and becomes an icon — kudos for the choice to cast actress Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the Bride (making connections to creator/creation even more obvious). A mesmerizing film that deserves its critical admiration.
#3: Night of the Living Dead (1968) – Everyone already knows this — or they should — but George A. Romero’s first feature-length film, Night of the Living Dead, is one of the greatest and most influential horror films ever made and inspired countless subsequent films, comics/TV franchises, university classes, and even fundraising efforts, etc. One of the most financially successful independent films ever made (it cost about $100,000 to make and made over $30 million at the time), the shocking thing is that Romero saw virtually none of that profit and, because of a mix-up from the film’s distributor, the film ultimately wasn’t copyrighted and entered public-domain very early. Tonally, it’s quite different from its sequels (e.g. Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, etc.) but Night of the Living Dead feels rich with socio-cultural commentary. A truly remarkable accomplishment for any film, let alone a first film.
#2: The Old Dark House (1932) – Tonally, James Whale’s The Old Dark House is perhaps the weirdest, most unconventional film on this list. I wouldn’t necessarily call the film “camp” (maybe “camp-like,” maybe “proto-camp” or something), but it’s really tricky to definitively pin down the tonal register — at times, it feels like a gothic horror and at other times it feels like a romantic-comedy. For that reason, I totally “get” why this film is often overlooked within Whale’s oeuvre in favor of films like Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. That said, its unforced quirkiness is one of the reasons why I loved this film so much, as I found my thoughts returning to the film throughout the month to (re)consider how a film like The Old Dark House works when it probably shouldn’t work.
#1: Peeping Tom (1960) – Despite the fact that it had been previously recommended to me many, many times by folks whose cinematic opinions I greatly respect and trust, I just somehow never watched Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom until this month for this particular marathon. When the movie ended, I was mad — actually mad — at myself for waiting so long to watch this amazing film. It’s simply brilliant and easily one of the greatest horror films ever made, full of astoundingly surprising directorial choices and anchored by one of the most memorable performances (by Carl Boehm) to ever occur in a horror film. Peeping Tom screams to be dissected, analyzed, scrutinized, debated, etc. via multiple critical lenses. A film where the murderer literally kills people with his camera, while we (the audience) adopt the perspective of the murderer (and, as we learn) also his victim. Whew…an incredibly bold and risky movie that was waaaaaaay ahead of its time. Watch it!
I really enjoyed watching all these pre-1970s horror films, as it was fun to go back and re-watch some older movies that I hadn’t seen in awhile and to (finally!) watch for the first time a bunch of the “classics” that I’d been putting off forever. Some takeaways: (1) A beautiful black-and-white film is, for my money, more beautiful than a color film — something about light and shadow blah blah blah; (2) James Whale is a directorial genius and a true auteur, if such a thing exists in filmmaking; (3) More than maybe any other genre, the great “horror” films never go out-of-style because they reflect issues / problems / concerns / etc. within the individual human psyche and the collective human society, which (sadly) never seem to leave us and our species. Even if our understandings and languages for exploring these things evolve (as they must and should), there’s still something here — however flawed and imperfect — that horror films are unearthing and engaging and reifying, which I think is very exciting!