Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Top 10 Pre-1960s Horror Movies

The horror genre in film has been around practically as long as film itself has existed. Since the silent film era, the horror film has been a mainstay, with the period of the mid-1920s to right before 1960 marking the era of somewhat "classy" horror. I call it classy because a number of horror films from this era made huge bank (for their time), were surefire box office draws, and usually featured headliners such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing among others. This was when the horror genre seemingly wasn't looked at with as much disdain as it would be in the near future, which kind of marks this era for horror fans as golden age.

So I've managed to compile a list of what I consider the ten best horror films from this pre-1960 era. I know that many purists certainly won't agree with this, and this was terribly difficult to put together considering what all I left off of here. Classic films that didn't make the cut included "The Wolfman", "House on Haunted Hill", "The Mummy", "Frankenstein", "White Zombie", "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", and "Freaks". I also originally intended on including "King Kong" and "Gojira" (aka "Godzilla") on this list, but upon further examination, I decided against it because both of those films are more towards the adventure genre than horror.

Anyway, let's get on with the list. Try not to lynch me after please.

Director: James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart

Helmed by the man that brought "Frankenstein" to the big screen, "The Old Dark House" is one of the most terribly underrated films of the era. The story revolves around a group of Welsh travellers seeking shelter during a violent rainstorm, and are taken in by the Femm family in their expansive mansion. It doesn't take too long to figure that there is something seriously wrong with the Femm's, as well as with their mute manservant Morgan (Karloff, who proves here he can be scary and tragic without the Frankenstein monster make up) in particular. Spooky, claustrophobic, and loaded with wonderful atmosphere, "The Old Dark House" is a hidden gem of the era that deserves your attention.

9. THE BLOB (1958)
Director: Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe

What's the first thing you hear during this film's opening credits? That theme song. That wonderfully hysterical, fucking, theme song. I swear it's a thing of beauty. Anyway, "The Blob" is memorable for a lot of reasons, and not just because Steve fucking McQueen was 27 years old and playing a teenager, but because it's a super enjoyable creature-feature that featured some special effects that were ahead of its time. "The Blob" also has a special place in my heart because it was filmed in Phoenixville, PA. I was born there, and though I didn't live in that exact same area before I departed for Philadelphia years later, for years all I would hear from various neighbors, etc. was that "they made that Blob movie here in the 50s. Steve McQueen was here before he got famous". Call it for the sake of...well, call it whatever you want. I enjoy "The Blob" regardless. Not to mention I enjoy going to the Colonial in Phoenixville every summer for BlobFest. How many movies from this era can say that they inspired an annual celebration/festival in its name?

Director: Howard Hawks (uncredited), Christian Nyby
Starring: James Arness, Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan

I could talk about this film and everything associated with it for hours. Based on the short story "Who Goes There?", "The Thing From Another World" revolves around a United States Air Force crew along with some scientists in the Arctic that recover a flying saucer and its frozen pilot that have crash landed into the ice. Once dug up and thawed out, the alien being begins wreacking havoc, and the body count rises. Suspenseful and thoroughly entertaining throughout, "The Thing From Another World" isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination (with a few noticable continuity errors peppered throughout the production), but for its time it has plenty of heart and imagination. This was one of the earliest horror films I ever saw in my youth, so it has a special place in my heart. That, along with its 1982 remake from John Carpenter, which is a classic in its own right, and one of those rare cases where the remake is better than the original.

Director: Erle C. Kenton
Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Bela Lugosi

One of the most criminally underrated films of its era, "The Island of Lost Souls" has, in the decades since its release, been reclassified as a classic of the genre. The first film adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau", this take on his work wasn't looked upon too well by Wells, critics, or audiences, mostly due to the fact that much of Wells' philosophical musings were overshadowed by the surprisingly visceral horror elements. That aside, "The Island of Lost Souls" is a true piece of art. The makeup effects are good for their time, and the cast is brilliant, in particular genre veteran Charles Laughton as the manical Doctor. The film was released on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion a year or two ago, which in itself pretty much helps solidify its status as a classic of the genre.

Director: Terrence Fisher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough

Known just as "Dracula" everywhere else except for the United States, "Horror of Dracula" is the first of the Dracula series from Hammer Films. The legendary British horror studio that churned out numerous beloved genre films for decades, this film took Bram Stoker's novel and ran with it. It's barely faithful to the novel in all honesty, but its gothic atmosphere, beautiful set design, and the perfect casting of genre heavyweights Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing is the icing on the cake. Lee would play Dracula many more times throughout his career, becoming almost as iconic in the role as...well, someone we'll get to later. Anyway, "Horror of Dracula" is my personal favorite Dracula movie, and no I'm not just saying that because this was the first Dracula film to show blood and tits in full color glory.

Director: Robert Wiene
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Lil Dagover

One of two films that symbolize German expressionism at its finest (we'll get to the other one soon enough), "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is a thing of beauty. Dr. Caligari is a mad hypnotist that uses a man to commit brutal murders. There's much more to the story than that, but revealing more would be doing a disservice. Bold, brilliant, and with one of the very first uses of the "twist ending" in cinema history, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" isn't just one of the finest silent horror films ever, it's one of the greatest silent films ever, period. It's also public domain, meaning you have no reason not to see it.

4. HOUSE OF WAX (1953)
Director: Andre de Toth
Starring: Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Charles Bronson

The first color 3D film to be seen nationwide, the classic "House of Wax" sees horror icon Vincent Price at his best. A remake of a 1933 film, "House of Wax" revolves around a talented wax sculptor with some super shady secrets. Chances are you already know without possibly ever actually having seen the film...that's how much of an impact this has had on the horror genre and film in general overall. Price is wonderful; managing to switch from charming and suave to totally fucking creepy with the flick of a switch.

3. NOSFERATU (1922)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder

Remember what I said earlier about German expressionism when talking about "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"? All of that applies to "Nosferatu". When the rights to make an adaptation of "Dracula" couldn't be secured, director F.W. Murnau decided to make an "unauthorized" adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. Stoker's family sued, and every copy of the film was ordered to be destroyed, yet somehow one print of the film survived. I'm totally serious about that. Read up on the history of the film, you'll shit yourself in astonishment. Anyway, "Nosferatu" follows a lot of the same plot points that "Dracula" laid out, but it's the gorgeous cinematography and the foreboding atmosphere that really make it the classic that it is. To this day, almost a full century later, "Nosferatu" is still haunting.

Director: James Whale
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester

This was difficult. It was almost a toss up between "Bride of Frankenstein" and its 1931 predecessor "Frankenstein", but for me, the sequel wins out. Picking up where the first film left off, The Monster demands his creator to make him a bride. Eventually Doctor Frankenstein complies, and things don't end up going well for anyone really. While it has its share of camp compared to the first film, "Bride of Frankenstein" has much more subtext in terms of being a religious allegory (and not in a positive light), something that was a no-no in this era of Hollywood. Ballsy and ahead of its time, "Bride of Frankenstein" is one of the best films of the classic Universal Monsters lineup...but there's one film from that family that manages to outshine it just a bit...

1. DRACULA (1931)
Director: Tod Browing
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners

What can I really say about "Dracula" that hasn't been said about a million fucking times already? Not much honestly. Out of all the classic Universal Monsters films from this era, and the horror films of this era in general, none have had the long-standing impact that "Dracula" has. What makes me say that? Just think about Count fucking Dracula right now. Think about him in your head. What does he look like? Does he look like Christopher Lee? Or Frank Langella? Or Gary Oldman? No, no, and fuck no. When you think of Dracula, you think of Bela Lugosi. It's the classic look that became forever associated with Bram Stoker's character. Those eyes. That voice. The hypnotic performance that Lugosi gives. There hasn't been an iconic performance of Dracula, and perhaps any other movie monster, in all of film history. Boris "Frankenstein" Karloff comes close, but it's Lugosi that makes "Dracula" as memorable as it is. Sure, Tod Browning's direction and the overall atmosphere help make it as epic as it is, but again, it all comes back to Lugosi. All of that combined helps make "Dracula" the best film of this era.

So that's my top 10 horror films pre-1960. Agree? Disagree? Have little to no idea what the fuck I'm talking about? That's okay, some of you may be wondering if I know what the fuck I'm talking about. Regardless, you should check out these films if you've never caught them before. You'll be glad that you did.

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