One of my favorite things about horror movies is how long they’ve been around.
People started making scary films as soon as they could. Audiences have always loved going to horror movies. Films like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were widely popular. A lot of these movies became genre classics. You’ll find them on many best-of-horror lists, where they are widely praised for employ innovative techniques and practical effects to terrify audiences.
There’s just one problem—the majority of those films are no longer scary by today’s standards.
With all the technical advancements film has made and considering how horror has evolved as an art form, movies like Vampyr are no longer upsetting or provocative. I’m not saying films like The Wolfman and Nosferatu didn’t terrify viewers upon release. I’m not saying that those movies didn’t push filmmaking forward. But come on, is The Wolfman still scary? Is Nosferatu as shocking as it once was?
Personally, I think not. I appreciate those films and believe they’ve earned their place in the horror-movie pantheon. They simply don’t scare me, much less disturb me, not like they scared and disturbed their original audiences.
However, there are a handful of classic horror movies still packing a punch after all these years. These eight films are creepy, unsettling, and unforgettable. They’ve endured in large part because they couldn’t use gore and violence to tell a story. Instead, they depended on solid writing, great acting, and inventive filmmaking techniques to conjure up spooky, dreadful atmospheres. These marvelous films worm their way into our psyches, setting our imaginations loose.
There is one catch—these films require your full attention. Don’t try to multitask and watch. You’ll miss all the nuance. All the artistry. And you’ll fail to see why these films are so engrossing and important today.
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
The sets. LORD, the sets.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the most famous example of the German Expressionism movement, which was all about delving deep into the psychological turmoil of post-WWI Germany. Artistic risks were not only encouraged, but kind of mandatory. Themes of insanity and obsession dominated. Art was supposed to be confrontational and uncomfortable.
This comes through loud and clear in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, whose set design evokes a waking nightmare. Walls slant at severe angles. Rooms are cramped, claustrophobic little caves. Streets are crooked and blotted with indistinct shapes. Rooftops are broken lines. On top of that, the harsh contrast between light and shadow enhances the disorienting effect, so much so that certain frames look like abstract art painted during a bad acid trip.
Watching real human beings move through these surreal scenes becomes very uncomfortable. It gets worse as the film goes on. Because the film itself is old and deteriorated, the images become nightmarish. As in the very worst bad dreams, faces grow twisted and indistinct, characters stagger around frantically, and monsters jerk around the frame, sliding in and out of shadows without much warning.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most visually profound movies of all time. It is certainly the most striking film on this list. It makes for a very tense and unforgettable movie experience.
- Night of the Hunter (1955)
This might be an unpopular inclusion, but I had a really strong reaction to this movie, mostly because villain Reverend Powell creeped me out badly. He made my skin crawl with his brand of poisonous misogyny. Lead actor Robert Mitchum turns in a magnificent performance, carrying the whole movie. He is charming when he needs to be and terrifying when he wants to be, but his hatred of women is always roiling under the surface. Powell is a psychopath, switching effortlessly between attentive, condescending, flattering, ruthless, and abusive. He has no qualms about murdering women or terrifying small children to get his way.
Mitchum knows how to pitch his voice to make Powell seem like a stern by kindly preacher offering salvation and he knows how to flip everything around to become a vicious zealot utterly convinced of his righteousness. He brings an intimidating physical presence to the role, really inhabiting the scene. He is in control of every scene, unafraid to manipulate the other characters. As director Charles Laughton explained to Mitchum, Rev. Powell is, “a diabolical shit.”
Yes, Night of the Hunter is also a technically well-made movie with tenebrous lighting, inspired framing and composition, and deliberately slow but tense pacing, but they support Robert Mitchum’s larger-than-life portrayal of personified evil. His performance is what you’ll remember.
- Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Leave it to the French to create one of the most alarming films I’ve seen recently and make it look gorgeous. Eyes Without a Face looks like a fairy tale gone horribly wrong but beautifully shot. Poor Christiane is the suffering, imprisoned princess, beset by a terrible curse. That featureless white mask she wears instead of a face will always be creepy, but what’s underneath is infinitely worse. Trapped in her murderous father’s mansion, Christiane glides around like a demented Snow White in her Givenchy gowns, her desperate eyes flickering behind the mask.
As if that wasn’t gothic and uncomfortable enough, Eyes Without a Face treats its viewer to many understated and shocking horrors. Her father and his assistant dump the bodies of their victims in rivers and crypts. In an example of early body horror, a face-graft operation fails to take but her father forces Christiane to wear the rotting face for twenty days while he documents what went wrong. And then the film tilts into slasher territory when Christiane snaps and brutally murders her captors.
All of those details make a solid movie, but I included this film on the strength of its infamous face transplant scene. The brilliance of the scene is that it’s not gory or very bloody. Paradoxically, by showing the operation in a restrained manner, it seems more visceral, more real. It’s easy to dismiss a gory scene as garish and artificial, but Eyes Without a Face subverted my expectations. It is gross. It is shocking. It is painful to watch. I made the mistake of watching this film while eating and I completely lost my appetite. Eyes Without a Face turned my stomach; I can’t remember the last time a horror movie accomplished that.
- Peeping Tom (1960)
Like Night of the Hunter, the lead performance is essential to Peeping Tom. I cannot stress enough how straight-up creepy Carl Boehm is in this film. He’s not a raving lunatic; his outwardly calm demeanor hides a brutal sense of self-loathing and murderous lust. He goes from catatonic expressions to wide-eyed longing to harrowing murder eyes, often in the same scene. In a movie all about voyeurism, Boehm’s unwavering gaze is menacing. Performances like Boehm’s will always be timeless and terrifying. I’m not sure another actor could have pulled it off.
Additionally, Peeping Tom was extremely controversial upon release for its force perspective technique. Not only did director Michael Powell want his audience to experience extreme violence (for the time), but he wanted to force his audience to experience it in the killer’s point of view. Powell goes so far as to film multiple scenes as the killer’s camera. This technique makes the viewer more than a passive watcher in the murders; the viewer is right there in the scene like active participant.
The forced perspective off-putting and harrowing, like the best horror movies. And like the best horror movies, Peeping Tom holds up a mirror to its audience. Peeping Tom made me examine at my own enjoyment of horror movies. It confronted me with my own morbid curiosity. What does it say about me that I enjoy movies where people, mainly women, are subjected to violent torture and murder? Who is the actual peeping tom?
- Psycho (1961)
I don’t think I could make this list and not include Psycho. I could go on about how great Anthony Perkins is as the deranged Norman Bates. I could take about how Hitchcock once again imbues every single scene with suspense and restrains the horror until he unleashes it at his audience in a crescendo of screams and violence. I could talk about how he plays with perspective with odd frame composition and disconcerting lighting choices.
Instead, I’ll focus on the infamous shower scene. Every horror director should (and probably does) use this scene as a yardstick by which to measure all other horror movie kills. The tension is strong at the beginning, building up how intimate it is to watch Marion in the shower, forcing the viewer to confront how vulnerable she is.
All of this is to say that the editing is the real star here. This scene, like all of Psycho, is FLAWLESSLY edited. Hitchcock set up 77 different camera angles for this one scene, which produced a mountain of raw footage to sort through. The editing for this scene took that footage and created one of the most engrossing, horrifying, and iconic murder scenes ever. It depicts how savage and messy a stabbing is in unwavering detail. It’s a whirl of blades and flesh and water and blood, and the viewer is in it! The countless angles confuse the viewer’s point of view, leading one to ask, where am I in this scene? Am I in the shower? Am I above it? Am I being stabbed? Am I the one stabbing?
And then, as quickly as it started, the violence stops. Yet the camera refuses to turn away, forcing the viewer to watch as she slowly dies.
- The Innocents (1961)
Ah, another amazing example of how solid filmmaking basics can make or break a horror movie. This is my favorite film on this list, mostly because I love how The Innocents focuses on how it doesn’t take much for a person to freak the hell out. A screeching door hinge, a creaking step, the sound of disembodied footsteps. Phantom voices. Echoing sobs. fierce whispers about the most peculiar and startling things, hinting at all sorts of depravity. These things alone would terrify anyone, but together? I know I’d be gone, over it, finished, calling a priest to come bless my house. Don’t act like you wouldn’t feel the same way.
The Innocents is an incredibly restrained film. Through the use of chilling sound effects, stylized shots, and ominous lighting, the film puts the viewer on edge. Once that’s accomplished, it doesn’t take much to scare the audience—when a jump-scare or sudden reveal occurs, the scene feels genuinely shocking. And The Innocents has some damn good jump scares. One in particular scares me every single time, even though I’ve seen the movie half a dozen times.
I must also give tons of credit to lead actress Deborah Kerr for her turn as neurotic governess Miss Giddens. She carries the film. It was an especially challenging role, since a lot of the on-screen terrors may exist only in her mind. Her performance is tortured and full of psychological turmoil. Miss Giddens is desperately conflicted between her professional duties and her own repressed urges. Her nuanced performance leaves you wondering what the ending means; the sense of dread will cause your imagination to run wild, just like poor Miss Giddens.
- Carnival of souls (1962)
Despite the super-low budget, this movie is damn good. Carnival of Souls is ballsy, refusing to pull punches. It loves to create a gloomy mood before hitting the audience with the goods. To accomplish this, stark black-and-white photography and eerie organ music concocts a sense of foreboding, which sustains the film’s tension throughout. In fact, the whole movie is crafted with enough precision and boldness to overcome the limitations of its plot and some of its unintentional campiness. But most of the film’s apprehension comes from the portrait of main character Mary, played by Candice Hilligoss.
The psychological horror of her story is front and center. Poor Mary tries to fit in, but she’s too introverted and uninterested in niceties to care much. This earns her all sorts of terrible treatment from the men around her—they talk down to her, they tell her what to do and how to act, they harass her, they man-handle her, and they stalk her. The acting is surprising convincing for a low-budget flick, which really sells the threatening way these men act towards Mary. As a woman, I felt very uncomfortable watching Mary navigate her interactions with these men.
Despite her independence, Mary finds herself with little control over her life. Why is she drawn to the abandoned carnival? Why does she experience horrifying periods where she can’t communicate with other people? What does the man want from her? I think Carnival of Souls is wise to divulge as little explanation as possible. The viewer receives only more questions as the film progresses, which ups the tension.
Of course, this gradual increase in the tension paves the way for Mary’s harrowing encounters with The Man. Sudden appearances from him and his ghoulish fiends are startling and creepy, propelling Mary’s descent into a nightmarish parallel reality and putting the audience on edge. The mirror scene is a favorite of mine (it is especially unpleasant), as are the many strange and menacing shots of the fiends.
- The Haunting (1963)
The Haunting is another example of how important the lease performance is in a classic horror film. Julie Harris is wonderful as the nervous, distraught Eleanor. Poor Eleanor is depressed at the beginning of the film, but that’s nothing compared to how she slowly unravels due to the unexplained phenomena in the house. I found it genuinely unnerving to watch that fragile woman go mad. Julie Harris plays Eleanor as neurotic, willful, and needy, which makes her both pathetic and annoying. She brings a certain kind of manic intensity to the role.
The Haunting is also very good at the technical aspects of filmmaking, employing a wide range of practical effects to achieve the creepy feel of the movie. Director Robert Wise pulled out all the stops—harsh lighting, ominous sound, perplexing camera angles, unorthodox forced perspectives, and sharp editing. But he didn’t stop there. Wise wasn’t above commissioning special set pieces for his clever practical effects. One of his best ideas was using a nifty set-up to capture the nauseating point of view shots for the spiral staircase scenes. The first time I saw it, that scene made my head spin. I felt queasy for the rest of the movie.
Like other horror movies on this list, The Haunting chooses to use point of view to scare the audience. It’s an excellent choice, since The Haunting is about witnessing strange things, being confused and shaken, and doubting your senses and thoughts. The Haunting doesn’t need to show the audience much. It’s always more distressing to watch characters go crazy with fear.