Our nation's movie boogeymen have been around for a long time. We've seen some of the classic movie monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Mummy — so many times they just aren't scary any more; with no element of surprise, the bogeymen are now our buddies. We've also been desensitized: After the shocks of Psycho and Peeping Tom in 1960, and the success of graphic horror such as Last House on the Left, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we started to take our horror hot and bloody.
But more than half of horror is what is left to the imagination. What happens in the shadows is pieced together by our frightened minds, and lives with us much longer than the gory excesses of the modern era. That's why some old-school black-and-white horror films continue to be the scariest movies out there. Here are ten of the most terrifying titles, films best seen in darkness, on an old TV screen that flings ragged traces of light across the watchers in the room as the killer creeps closer. And closer. And closer...
10. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
You may have seen it, but have you really watched it? Now that the 2014 Kino 4K restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available, you should. A mad doctor trains his catatonic slave to kidnap and kill. Here is a fountainhead of horror, presented in pure German Expressionist style – grotesque makeup; exaggerated poses; claustrophobic, painted environments; stark lighting and inky shadows – that creates a Cubist nightmare. (The producers approved the innovative design simply to save the cost of building realistic sets.) As the murderous somnambulist Cesare, Conrad Veidt began a long string of expert horror-movie portrayals; he’s best known in the U.S. as the evil Major Strasser in Casablanca.
9. The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)
Colorado Springs native Lon Chaney was silent film’s Man of a Thousand Faces; director Tod Browning was a maverick alcoholic who cast Chaney in ten brilliant, weird, dark films, and is best known today for the first Dracula and Freaks. In The Unknown, Chaney is Alonzo the Armless, a circus knife-thrower who’s in love with Nanon (an extremely young and scantily clad Joan Crawford), who can’t bear the touch of men’s hands. But he’s just pretending he has no arms. He has a double thumb, even. Then he kills . . . no, you really have to see it. A castration nightmare of the highest order.
8. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
This original portrait of a serial killer made Peter Lorre an international star. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film, and his favorite; his indictment of society is so lacerating that Hitler banned it, and it remained extremely hard to find until 1966. Lorre makes an inhuman monster comprehensible and pitiable; M questions everything from human justice to Almighty God himself; it also asserts that cops and criminals are just gangs with mutual interests – and that a disturbed society produces the maniacs who slaughter its citizens.
7. Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932)
The first and best adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau stars Charles Laughton as the demonic doctor, whose experiments in his House of Pain laboratory turn animals into semi-human creatures. Into his lair lands the young, marooned hero, who Moreau plans to mate to his most human creation yet: Lota, the panther woman. The terrifying makeup, the barely concealed sexual subtext, and the emphasis on body horror put this disturbing classic fifty years ahead of its time. “Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?”
6. The Black Cat (Edgar Ulmer, 1934)
Lugosi vs. Karloff, with Bela as the good guy for a change. Boris, his deadly enemy, sports the biggest widow’s peak in film history and worships Satan. A young couple become pawns in the struggle between the nemeses in an Art Deco palace that sits on the graves of thousands of WWI dead; the movie fatures adultery, overtones of incest, mummification, human sacrifice and a man being skinned alive. Hollywood’s new Production Code would put an end to transgressive films like this, but it was Universal’s biggest money-maker of the year. The brilliant Edgar Ulmer went on to make great Poverty Row films such as Detour and Bluebeard.
5. Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935)
The second of four film adaptations of Maurice Renard’s The Hands of Orlac, the classic horror novel about a pianist whose damaged hands are replaced with an executed murderer’s. Peter Lorre stars as the compulsive, obsessive and violent (but gifted, naturally — Ritalin and Prozac might have saved this man!) surgeon Gogol, who’s in love with the pianist’s wife, an actress who specializes in horrific Grand Guignol-style theater. Erotic obsession has never been played so clearly and cleverly. This was Karl Freund’s last film as director; he was an Oscar-winning cinematographer who later invented the three-camera filming technique pioneered on TV’s I love Lucy.
4. The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise, 1945)
One of the nine great horror films produced by the inventive Val Lewton on a minuscule budget between 1942 and 1946, this tale of grave-robbers is all shadows – murders by firelight and victims walking into inky darkness, never to return. The oft-underestimated character actor Henry Daniell plays a surgeon torn between his need for bodies for his research and his guilt, while Karloff plays the murderous Cabman Gray, who supplies, and blackmails, the good doctor with a twisted, needling gusto that Karloff would never again equal. Robert Wise learned his directing craft with Lewton; it stood him in good stead with later classics he directed such as The Haunting and The Day the Earth Stood Still.
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3. Hangover Square (John Brahm, 1945)
The premise is absurd — a composer falls into fits of murderous amnesia when he hears discordant notes – but many times in his career, John Brahm turned bad premises into shocking horror. Joseph La Salle’s superb cinematography and the creep and thrum of Bernard Herrmann’s best little-known score make for a nail-biting experience in Hangover Square; the Guy Fawkes scene alone is worth the price of admission. This was leading man Laird Cregar’s last film; he paired previously with Brahm in the equally scary Jack the Ripper film The Lodger. Cregar, a heavy man, was a brilliant portrayer of villains but went on a crash diet during this film to become eligible for bigger parts – the strain of it killed him at 31. His eulogist? Future horror star Vincent Price.
2. Les Diaboliques (Georges Clouzot, 1955)
Body, body, who’s got the body? Les Diaboliques was the first film ever to use the “Please don’t tell anyone about the ending” notice at the finish — so if you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it. Georges Clouzot was a great director, and this movie features the distinctly tough-looking Simone Signoret, the great Paul Meurisse and Clouzot’s wife Vera, an equally great actress who was in far too few films. The suspense is ratcheted up with delicate, deliberate slowness. Most horror films are merely disturbing; when you leave Les Diaboliques, you can't even trust your own perceptions.
1. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
Hate and love. God and death. Childhood and murder. This darkest of fairy tales was Charles Laughton’s only directing job, and its fantastic expressionist style, wedded to Southern Gothic material, harkens back to Caligari. Robert Mitchum’s most indelible performance as an evil preacher is pretty much a Sociopath 101 course. With Lillian Gish as a saint with a shotgun. You will never be able to listen to the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” again.