The time of year when tombstones quake, things go bump in the night, and goblins and ghouls roam rapidly approaches. This means it’s about time to plan your horror viewing marathons. This series is written to educate you on the history of horror and to inform you about films that changed the genre or defined one of the various subgenres. Hopefully, I can guide you to your new favorite horror films.
101: Top Movies From The Dawn Of Horror
When trying to truly know a thing, it’s always a good idea to start at the beginning. So for the first installment in the educational series on horror, we will go back to the films that built the foundations of the genre. With that in mind please enjoy as I present to you, in chronological order, this list of my top horror movies from the first two decades of the genre.
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Thought by many to be the first true horror film, this intentionally oddly filmed piece is a trip through the mind of a madman. Though it’s never quite clear who’s the hero, and who’s the villain, or even who is sane, and who is mad, the film is a very stylized artistic horror experience. The sequences move slowly and have a variety of angles and compositions, creating a disorienting visual experience.
Another German film, and the first film reference to vampires, this film must be included in any list of Horror originators. Though not my favorite film on this list, the visual language is sharply defined and a great example of the origins of both gothic and film noir styles.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
This creepy and dark telling of what has become a very well known story of unrequited love contains one of the best performances of Lon Chaney Jr’s career. The mood throughout the film is gritty and gothic, with influences from French cinema as present as opera house where it takes place. This film set the platform upon which the future of Universal Studios horror films would be built, literally, legend has it that some of the haunted sets from this film still stand in one of the soundstages on the Universal Studios Backlot.
Nearly every vampire movie you’ve ever seen owes a bit of credit to this film. This movie was based on the classic Bram Stoker novel and features Bela Lugosi in one of his most legendary roles. Dark, eerie, and nearly goreless, this movie plays with the mind and the darker fears in all of us.
Morality plays make for great horror and Frankenstein is no exception. The birth of this Iconic monster character comes from the fear of science over religion. That same fear is the through-line of the film’s story. Full of messages about power, acceptance, loneliness, and fear, the movie pulls heartstrings as well as triggering adrenaline. Despite portraying numerous other widely varied roles this became Boris Karloff’s inescapable character.
When a child stealing serial killer strikes without warning, organized crime doesn’t care much, but when the investigation of that serial killer affects their business they decide to join the hunt. This movie is a beautifully done example of German expressionist filmmaking directed by Fritz Lang.
Far too disturbing for the audiences of its time, this movie was a financial failure but is brilliantly produced, and often overlooked. This movie centers around the marriage of a wealthy sideshow midget to a manipulative gold digger, and the many sideshow “Freaks” that come to rescue him and exact their violent revenge upon her. Most of the cast were actual sideshow freaks from a variety of midway shows and circuses. The well-known chant “One of Us” originated from this film, and is still incredibly creepy to watch.
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Having nothing to do with games in the playable fashion, this film noir classic is based on a 1924 book by Richard Connell and realigns the world of big game trophy hunting and ups the ante by including humans as “the most dangerous game” available. Featuring the same cast and many of the same sets as King Kong, the story follows a couple trapped on a private jungle island who are hunted for sport by a wealthy count. Certain sequences seem to have inspired modern films like The Running Man or Hunger Games with regards to the pursuit or Predator in the way the characters are forced to hide from or try to trap the would be killer.
The Mummy (1932)
Cursed to love forever, the Mummy is resurrected by reading from ancient texts and proceeds to stalk the unfortunate damsel he believes to be his lost love. This movie is one of the more visually rich films on the list and includes gorgeous sets, lighting, and camera work, as well as some very disturbing (in all the right ways) makeup design and application.
The Old Dark House (1932)
Groups of travelers find themselves seeking shelter from a rainstorm and end up in the home of some unusual characters. This well-crafted film is certainly not the most terrifying on the list but does deal with the twisted nature of people in a very interesting way.
Vampyr- Der Traum Des Allan Grey (1932)
Though the original version of the film is nearly impossible to find, The movie is strong enough stands up well to the various edits and duplications it’s been put through. The camera work and scenes are classic for the time. The story follows a series of supernatural murders committed by a vampiric woman.
The Black Cat (1934)
Featuring both Boris Karloff and Bella Lugosi, the biggest names in Hollywood horror at the time, The Black Cat follows the terror of an American couple trapped in a Satanic priest’s home in eastern Europe. Not exactly full of twists and turns this relatively straightforward movie is a great example of gothic horror.
The Wolfman (1941)
Despite being maligned by most critics and some viewers when it was released, this film was still a success and even created a variety of sequels, spin-offs, and crossovers. This film broke very little new ground cinematically and had only a few moments worth talking about, but still holds a special place in my heart.
If you feel like there is a film or two that I missed, please feel free to comment below! And please stay tuned for the more lists as we make our way together through the years into modern horror.