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Scare Tactics: 11 Horror Classics for Halloween

October is upon us. It’s supposed to be the scariest month of the year, but you’d never know it by looking at the marquee of your local megaplex. The run-up to Halloween usually means some good — or at least passable — horror flicks. These days most of what we get are tepid remakes, half-assed “found footage” films, teen angst dramas masquerading as vampire movies, and the inevitable sequels to all of the above. It makes us here at Movie Night long for the days before vampires glittered in sunlight and security camera footage passed for cinematography. This year, we’re revisiting the classics; here are some of our favorites, each original, stylish, and presented in glorious black and white:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Robert Wiene’s silent-era horror thriller still packs a punch, largely due to its stylized abstract set design that highlights the movie’s themes of delusion and altered states. The story — about a sideshow operator (Werner Krauss) who arrives in a German village with a prognosticating somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) — introduced the twist ending concept into cinema.

Phantom of the Opera (1925).
Of the numerous adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s classic novel, this silent-era classic stands as the best. Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, stars as the deformed anti-hero who haunts the Paris Opera House and stalks the woman he loves from afar. Chaney designed the character’s horrific countenance, and the masquerade ball sequence (filmed in color) is breathtaking.

Dracula (1931).
Before vampires turned emo and sparkly, they were ruthless Eurotrash dirty old men in pursuit of nubile young maidens — and it was glorious. Tod Browning’s classic adaptation of the stage play based Bram Stoker’s novel ushered in the era of Universal horror movies, made Bela Lugosi a household name, and established much of the iconography of vampire cinema. Also worth watching is the Spanish-language version filmed concurrently with Browning’s which used the same script, props, and soundstages.

Frankenstein (1931)/Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
A pseudo-companion piece to Dracula, James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel had a similar impact, cementing Boris Karloff’s standing as a horror movie icon and quickly achieving status as a classic. The inevitable sequel is a rarity (a well-crafted masterpiece in its own right that earned as much acclaim as its predecessor) and Elsa Lanchester’s performance as the Monster’s tragic bride is as iconic as Karloff’s — and so is her hairdo.

Freaks (1932).
Browning’s success with Dracula gave him plenty of leeway on his follow-up project, a movie that dared ask the question “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?”. He drew upon personal experience to deliver a tale of sinister goings-on at a traveling circus, and cast actual carnival workers and people with deformities rather than use professional actors and prosthetics. Controversial even by today’s standards, it’s no surprised it was banned worldwide for decades. Sadly, Browning’s career never recovered. (The movie is now part of the U.S. National Film Registry.)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
The best horror movies almost always function as metaphors for the darker side of the human condition, and Don Siegel’s (Dirty Harry) adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel still stands as one of the best allegories on socio-political paranoia and dehumanization. Largely ignored upon release, over time it crept back into the public consciousness and scored a spot on the AFI’s list of Top Ten Science Fiction Films; it also beat the odds by generating a couple of pretty good remakes.

Psycho (1960).
Before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, et al, master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock kickstarted the slasher genre with this chilling, innovative, and wholly disturbing adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel. Known more for crime thrillers and espionage dramas at the time, Hitchcock pushed plenty of buttons with this wholehearted plunge into horror, and tested the boundaries of acceptable standards sex and violence in film at that time. It is often considered the first psychoanalytical thriller as well, a direct forefather to The Silence of The Lambs and its many imitators.

Carnival of Souls (1962).
Made on a shoestring budget with amateur actors over a three-week period, this obscure indie gem by producer-director Herk Harvey plays like one of the more unnerving episodes of The Twilight Zone run amok. The story — about a young woman who finds herself tormented by specters after she moves to a small town in the wake of surviving a deadly accident — is a simple one, but Harvey manages to ratchet up the suspense and creepiness several notches by judicious use of pacing and atmosphere. It’s no small compliment that David Lynch and John Carpenter both cite it as a major influence.

Dementia 13 (1963).
Produced for AIP by “King of the B’s” Roger Corman and written and directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola (his first mainstream project), this undeniably weird movie is something of a guilty pleasure. The plot involves a conniving woman whose attempts to scam her way into her mother-in-law’s will are interrupted by the axe-wielding killer stalking the family. Corman — the man who gave us I Was a Teenage Caveman — had a falling-out with Coppola over the film, which he called “unreleasable” and brought in another director to complete it. In spite (or perhaps because) of this, it stands as a trashy classic.

Night of the Living Dead (1968).
The grandfather of the modern zombie movie, just about every bit of pop culture featuring the walking dead owes its existence to George Romero’s indie horror classic. Romero made his writing and directing debuts with this movie, which established the conventions of the sub-genre while subverting the hell out horror movies in general, with unprecedented gore and almost as much social commentary that reflected the turmoil of the late ’60s. Remember: “They’re coming to get you Barbara. Look — there’s one of them now!”

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About Gary Dowell

Professional film critic, journalist, Byronic hero.

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