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14 Must See Classic Horror Films - The Best Classic Horror Movies

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14 Must See Classic Horror Films - The Best Classic Horror Movies

September 20, 2012
By John Strand

The Best Classic Horror Movies

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 probably Psycho (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 my humble picks.  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.  The story revolves around Dr. Caligari and his ability to entrance a person with a sleep-walking disorder into obeying his wishes.  It is dark, twisted and has yet to be duplicated in its ability to shock and perplex audiences. The film’s abstract imagery – integral to the plot - also advanced the possibilities of film in ways never attempted. Although cinema goers would have to wait for the introduction of gore and scares, Cabinet’s creepy theme, on-screen violence and disturbing conclusion announced with a cinematic explosion the creation of the horror genre. Prior to its release, the closest thing to horror were shorts of gothic imagery without plot or story.  Although, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911) predates Cabinet, its contribution is slight, as it is just a retelling of the Victor Hugo novel without violence, or creepy theme.   Nosferatu (see below) may have cemented the creation of the genre, but Cabinet was prior, more nuanced and richer with seeds of horror left for other writers and directors to help bud.  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.  Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it is the retelling of a gothic masterpiece (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but it crosses the boundaries into horror with director Murnau’s successful attempt to frighten the audience with the appearance of Dracula.  His dark eyes and grotesque features horrified silent era film goers in ways not previously attempted.  Nosferatu laid the seeds for all creatures meant to send chills down our spines with just a glance.  Even contemporary audiences will find themselves creeped out by Dracula’s appearance.* 


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.  Although contemporary audiences will likely not jump out of their seats, they may appreciate that the film helped advertise Hollywood’s growing dominance of the movie industry – employing advanced effects, skilled actors and innovative cinematography – all for the noble purpose of scaring the crap out of the audiences.   

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.  (Interesting that der Fuhrer did not choose that one, as it is rife with anti-Semitism.)  Yet, King Kong brought a monster beyond the bounds of imagination to life in a way never done before.  Previous ‘monsters’ had human form and were quite clearly acted by humans.  King Kong shattered that barrier and proved what special effects can do to enhance the terror of an irrational and destructive beast.  Contemporary horror fans will not be very impressed with these effects, but King Kong was a milestone to which directors of monster movies from The Blob to Alien are indebted.

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 disturbing theme is coupled with the first on-screen person-to-person killing.  (Horror freaks will enjoy the cinematic symbolism of which actor plays the victim.)  Although tame by today’s standards, the kill scene was considered “pure sensationalism” by critics.  Yet, more significantly, at a time when grotesque Hollywood monsters were hogging the silver screen, this film represents a radical turn to the monster inside and began the process of refocusing horror closer to the realm of the everyday.   

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. Shockingly ahead of its time, Bad Seed depicts a psychopath in the form of a 9-year old girl.  There are no scares, or gore and the audience never sees her killings (though sometimes we hear them), but the disturbing theme resonates, especially since she appears sweet and innocent.  The film’s message may be even more disturbing to contemporary viewers, as modern society’s knowledge of psychopathy is more thorough and such monsters seem very, very real.  This is a breakthrough, not fully appreciated, as it crosses the final frontier of fear.  Anyone can be a monster - even your golden-haired daughter.  


The Horror of Dracula

The Horror of Dracula (1958) transforms the original roles of Harker and Van Helsing (Pete Cushing – for all you Star Wars fans) from realtor and scientist into committed vampire hunters who set out to kill Count Dracula at any cost.  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.  The imminent director also took scares to a new level – startling audiences around the country with revolutionary camera shifts coupled with disjointed music. If nothing else, nobody can live a full life, without watching the infamous shower scene – where a naked woman is brutally stabbed several times and left to bleed out – obliterating blood and skin barriers in the most classic scare of all time.   

Village of the Damned Poster
Village of the Damned (1960).  1960 was a banner year for horror.  Although, not as groundbreaking as Psycho, Village 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.  Soon they can read thoughts and even control actions of the townspeople.  Several disturbing scenes and an unprecedented conclusion make this black and white gem a must-see for any Sci-Fi horror buff.  The forerunner of alien invasion movies, it is also one of the most unique, as it managed to elude hackneying directors who captured and mangled so many earlier works.


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).  The story is nothing particularly interesting, but the make-up effects were a breakthrough and eerily similar to the ones employed by Romero eight years later.  Although, I insist on enjoying movies from start to finish there are some slower parts through which the less patient may be interested in fast-forwarding.


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. A girl survives a car accident and moves to a new town to forget the tragedy, but experiences an unusual form of post-traumatic stress, which includes loss of hearing, loss of her own voice and the tendency to see a ghost.  In the climax, she runs from souls attempting to drag her to the other side.  As with most independent films, some of the acting is mediocre, but the story is original and further laid the groundwork for Romero’s masterpiece. If Black Sunday inspired his zombie effects, this film inspired their behavior.

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 demonstrated how gore could terrify audiences when placed in a disturbing and, at times, terrifying context.  In many ways the film is an arrogant showpiece of the eminent director’s talents: He can make you terrified of anything – even something as innocuous as a seagull. Indeed, if Hitchcock had managed the trifectite of unprecedented gore, scares and creepy theme in one film, The Exorcist would not have been noteworthy.

Rosemarys Baby

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) takes its audience through the terrifying experience of paranoid delusions versus the possibility of a conspiracy by those closest to you.  The protagonist (Mia Farrow) experiences these thoughts in the form of an unusual pregnancy.  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. 

* - Silent film.  The background music does not add much to the film and you may prefer watching it mute.

 

Below is how these fourteen films stack up against each other.  All are scored based on originality, story, scares, gore and creepy theme (1 is the lowest and 5 the highest).  The scoring represents how they stack up to each other, not contemporary horror.  For example, a score of ‘5’ for gore does not imply the gore levels are unsurpassed by films after The Exorcist. Below the overall rankings are rankings based on each of the measured elements.

Classic Horror Movie Ranking:

14) Nosferatu
Originality: 2
Story: 2
Scares: 2
Gore: 1
Creepy theme: 2
Total score = 9

13) Black Sunday
Originality: 2
Story: 1
Scares: 2
Gore: 3
Creepy theme: 2
Total score = 10

12) The Horror of Dracula
Originality: 2
Story: 2
Scares: 2
Gore: 2
Creepy theme: 2
Total score = 10

11) The Body Snatcher
Originality: 2
Story: 3
Scares: 2
Gore: 1
Creepy theme: 2
Total score = 10

10) Dracula
Originality: 2
Story: 3
Scares: 2
Gore: 1
Creepy theme: 2
Total score = 10

9) King Kong
Originality: 4
Story: 3
Scares: 2
Gore: 1
Creepy theme: 2
Total score = 12

8) Bad Seed
Originality: 4
Story: 3
Scares: 1
Gore: 1
Creepy theme: 4
Total score = 13

7) Carnival of Souls
Originality: 5
Story: 3
Scares: 2
Gore: 1
Creepy theme: 3
Total score = 14

6) Village of the Damned
Originality: 4
Story: 4
Scares: 2
Gore: 1
Creepy theme: 3
Total score = 14

5) Rosemary’s Baby
Originality: 4
Story: 4
Scares: 1
Gore: 1
Creepy theme: 4
Total score = 14

4) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Originality: 5
Story: 5
Scares: 1
Gore: 1
Creepy theme: 3
Total score = 15

3) The Birds
Originality: 4
Story: 3
Scares: 4
Gore: 4
Creepy theme: 3
Total score = 18

2) The Night of the Living Dead
Originality: 4
Story: 2
Scares: 3
Gore: 5
Creepy theme: 4
Total score = 18

1) Psycho
Originality: 4
Story: 5
Scares: 4
Gore: 2
Creepy theme: 5
Total score = 20

Classic Horror Movie Rank by Category

Originality
1)    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
2)    Carnival of Souls
3)    Night of the Living Dead
4)    Psycho
5)    Village of the Damned
6)    The Birds
7)    Bad Seed
8)    King Kong
9)    Rosemary’s Baby
10)    The Body Snatcher
11)    The Horror of Dracula
12)    Black Sunday
13)    Dracula
14)    Nosferatu

Story
1)    Psycho
2)    Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
3)    Village of the Damned
4)    Rosemary’s Baby
5)    The Birds
6)    The Body Snatcher
7)    Bad Seed
8)    Carnival of Souls
9)    King Kong
10)    Dracula
11)    Night of the Living Dead
12)    The Horror of Dracula
13)    Nosferatu
14)    Black Sunday

Scares
1)    Psycho
2)    The Birds
3)    Night of the Living Dead
4)    Horror of Dracula
5)    Village of the Damned
6)    Dracula
7)    Carnival of Souls
8)    King Kong
9)    The Body Snatcher
10)    Black Sunday
11)    Nosferatu
12)    Rosemary’s Baby
13)    Bad Seed
14)    Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Gore
1)    Night of the Living Dead
2)    The Birds
3)    Black Sunday
4)    Psycho
5)    The Horror of Dracula
6)    Nosferatu
7)    Village of the Damned
8)    Rosemary’s Baby
9)    Carnival of Souls
10)    Dracula
11)    King Kong
12)    The Body Snatcher
13)    Bad Seed
14)    Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Creepy Theme
1)    Psycho
2)    Rosemary’s Baby
3)    Night of the Living Dead
4)    Bad Seed
5)    Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
6)    Carnival of Souls
7)    Village of the Damned
8)    The Birds
9)    The Body Snatcher
10)    King Kong
11)    Dracula
12)    The Horror of Dracula
13)    Nosferatu
14)    Black Sunday

Freaked-out,
John Strand a.k.a. Duke of Terror
 

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Comments

September 20, 2012
nice
By: Matt Molgaard
awesome list! Not a single film included that I would disagree with!
September 21, 2012
Where is Frankenstein!!!
By: Eugenious
How can this be missed out...
September 21, 2012
A good selection
By: Nuno Correia
No matter how dated most of these films are, they still manage to hold some allure to modern moviegoers. This list is pretty spot-on, although I would personally remove "The Bad Seed" from the equation (I see it more as a drama with only hints of horror, akin to "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?") and include a few more, such as "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925); "Frankenstein" (1931) and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935); the highly influential "Cat People" (1942); "The Thing from Another World" (1951); "Night of the Demon" (1957); "The Fly" (1958); "The Tingler" (1959); the forerunner of modern J-horror, "Ghost Story of Yotsuya" (1959); "Peeping Tom" (1960); "The Innocents" (1961); and another important source of inspiration for Romero's zombies, "The Last Man on Earth" (1964). Indeed, it is extremely difficult to highlight the best and most important ones, as horror can be such a subjective genre, but it is nice to see forerunners such as "White Zombie" and "The Golem" referenced. "The Lost World" (1925) was actually the first to feature stop-motion animated monsters (if you consider dinosaurs as such) but "King Kong" clearly takes the trophy.
March 29, 2013
seen 'em
By: georgia
I've seen them all\, been an avid horror movie fan as long as I can remember. I love \"best-horror-movies.com\". Thanks .
March 30, 2013
No OMEM!
By: gillgayle@gmail.com
Where is The Omen?
May 5, 2013
Great List
By: horror on screen
Usefull list. Every horror fans need to know their classics. Need to watch \"The Bad Seed\". If I can add one\, it would be \"Freaks\" (1932)
June 20, 2013
Great List
By: Jacob
I would say that this list is really good\, but if there was any one that I would replace it would be Horror of Dracula because I thought it was good\, but that Curse of Frankenstein was much better (thus\, that is the film I wold replace it with). I am not sure which other horror films on the list\, if any\, I would replace\, but Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein would be great additions as well. Also\, Freaks. Overall\, a really good list.
June 23, 2013
Good list but
By: mini
What about Peeping Tom? Hitchcocks inspiration for Psycho!!!!!!!!!!!
August 6, 2013
love the classics
By: Brenda
I agree these r great must sees. However\, i never cud get into king Kong.
August 16, 2013
...& Don't forget...
By: Mr Barlow
The Dark Secret of Harvest Home
August 23, 2013
Fantastic List!
By: shaxper
You covered the core classics\, and also gave attention to some of my absolute favorite lesser knowns like Body Snatchers and Carnival of Souls. I'm just surprised to see Frankenstein (1931)\, Faust (1926)\, and The Uninvited (1944) not on the list.
September 3, 2013
Wrong Words
By: John F C Taylor
Should\, must and have to just chase me away from whatever subject they are attached to. Not that it really matters in this case as I never much cared for this genre. However\, I will make exceptions for original Dracula and King Kong. I would also put the original 13 Ghosts on the list.
September 20, 2013
Thank You for your comments
By: John Strand
We will be publishing a new and expanded list sometime next week (hopefully). Your comments have been VERY helpful. Although the list will not be all-inclusive, many that have been discussed will appear on it.
September 23, 2013
Great list
By: Snow White
I would probably add The Virgin Spring and Freaks
October 17, 2013
Carnival of Souls? Really?
By: KM
I just watched Carnival of Souls a weed ago and I have to say it was absolutely, positively the WORST film I have ever seen. The story itself could have made for a good movie, but the embarrassingly awful acting and the slow pace of the film made it hard to watch. Top that off with a truly unacceptable sound quality and you have a film that is almost unwatchable. I have not seen all of the movies on you list so I can't truly judge it as a whole, but including Carnival of Souls makes me question your judgement. :)
October 24, 2013
eth
By: tuh
bt
November 18, 2013
good work
By: Jessica Greenman
that was fine.
February 19, 2014
The Screaming Skull
By: ANTHONY CASHMERE
Where is the horror thriller classic, THE SCREAMING SKULL? It should be a part of this catogorie, considering it's cult iconic status in the horror genre.
April 6, 2014
Originality
By: Bruno
I think that originality should be based on what it was competing against rather than what it engendered within the genre-Nosferatu, aside from redefining horror to it's modern definition, also depicted vampires in a way few filmmakers have touched upon-these films were heavily imitated, but were originals within the context of their times
May 11, 2014
The Classics are the Best!!
By: Suzuki Sue
I saw most of these and found that the older films were more psychological type thrillers that made you think who or what is going to happen next!! Yikes some were very scary... I used to watch a lot of Dennis Wheatley films in the 70's they were Weird and Wonderful Horrors back then.
May 19, 2014
What ABout These classic titles?
By: Sister Wendy Beckett
Good article... None the less, what the fuck about these classics? 1. the black cat 2. frankenstein 3. peeping tom 4. eyes without a face 5. the whip & the body 6. kill, baby. kill! 7. texas chain saw massacre 8. alice sweet alice 9. suspiria huh? I mean, do disagree with any of my suggestions? Well?!?
May 19, 2014
Oh, one more title I forgot...
By: Sister Wendy Beckett
and 10. the haunting
August 30, 2014
A bit of advice...
By: me
Could you possibly refrain from labeling films released before the advent of the television as "silver screen" releases? "Silver screen" actually refers to television; "big screen" refers to theater, which is the only outlet most of these titles had.
September 14, 2014
Where is Halloween?
By: Lex Sinclair
A good list. However, there were some classics not included such as John Carpenter's The Fog & Halloween.

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