Although CGI can now make our every nightmare possible, there is nothing better than an old school horror film and here are some of the best of classic horror movies. (1922 – 1980).
Arguably one of the greatest horror films ever made, The Exorcist is a movie that continues to scare today, and set the standard on how to do a “demon possessed” story right. The film has incredible pacing that slowly builds its scares and truly gets into the minds of the audience.
It has had several extended/recut releases that have continued to improve its scares (such as the legendary spider-walking scene), but some of the best moments come from the quieter showdowns between Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and the poor demon-possessed Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). Throw in that creepy demon voice provided by Mercedes McCambridge and you have a movie that will truly haunt your dreams for days – regardless of how many times you see it.
Despite director William Friedkin stating he doesn’t see The Exorcist as a horror film at all, it easily tops most “best of” horror film list and is the perfect example of all horror ingredients coming together at just the right time – from the film’s scary musical score to the head spinning shocks of the exorcism scenes.
From giving the screen a new iconic look for Dracula in Christopher Lee snarling and animalistic take on the character to pushing the boundaries of just how far horror could go on screen in The Karnstein Trilogy, horror was forever changed thanks to the United Kingdom’s Hammer Films production company.
Like Universal Pictures in the 1930s, Hammer made some of the best “monster” movies in its early days thanks to classics like The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy.
The films were fresh takes on characters that had gotten stale over the years and once again made horror icons out of the actors that would take on the roles – including Lee (who came to define Dracula but also appeared as the monster in Curse of Frankenstein and Kharis in The Mummy) and the legendary Peter Cushing (who came to define both the legendary vampire hunter Dr. Abraham Van Helsing and the mad scientist Victor von Frankenstein).
Later, Hammer Films pushed boundaries in style through how much flesh could be shown on screen and just how far they could take certain vampire activities. While some of the 1970s films don’t have the same magic as the early Hammer Films, there is no questioning the studios contribution to the horror genre or its place on any “best of” horror list.
Without a doubt the greatest haunted house horror novel ever written was Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. The book is filled with atmosphere and things so creepy your imagination runs wild. Sadly, there has yet to be a screen version of the story that can bring those scares to life as vividly as the novel, but 1963’s The Haunting comes very close.
As a movie, the 1963 version features a slow pace and the very definition of old school horror. The film makes the most of its dark shadowed corners, creepy camera angles, and moody score. The cast is at the top of their game and the director knows how to make the most out of Jackson’s story.
By today’s standards some might find the movie boring and not at all scary, but give it a chance and it will stay with you long after the credits roll. Everything the film does feels organic and stripped down. The house is truly evil thanks to the restraint shown by the cast and crew.
For an overblown laughable attempt at adapting Jackson’s novel, check out Jan de Bont’s 1999 train wreck of a horror film The Haunting. Everything the 1963 version got right, this remake gets wrong. The house never feels evil. Instead, it seems like CGI run wild with a cast trying their best to convince the audience they should be scared.
House of Wax
Released in 1953 and in 3-D, the film featured an incredibly twisted and tragic performance from horror icon Vincent Price (who also belongs on this list for House on Haunted Hill, The Masque of the Red Death, House of Usher, Witchfinder General, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and more) and was one of the first major films for fellow screen icon Charles Bronson (although his performance as Igor is credited as Charles Buchinsky).
By today’s standards, House of Wax has lost much of its scare value, but it is still a fun way to spend an evening watching a horror film in the dark, and might manage a jump or two. Some of the scares are a tad laughable and predictable now, but the film is filled with great atmosphere, and Price is at the top of his game walking a fine between villain and victim.
The film also belongs on this list simply because my mother saw it on the big screen as a child and is still scared of it to this day. She also never watched another Price film after seeing him in this one.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Better described as a psychological thriller than a horror film, 1964’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte belongs on this list because it is simply one creepy movie – from its over-the-top performance from Bette Davis (who also belongs on any horror list for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane), its creepy theme song, and brilliant use of black and white filming.
The movie pushes Davis’ character to the limits as its winding plot slowly unfolds and the dark truths are revealed. It has a ton of twists and turns, and manages to be just as scary today. Although this film doesn’t make a lot of “best of” horror list, it manages to stay with the audience long after the credits roll and can scare the hell out of you.
The Legend of Hell House
Released in 1973 and based on Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House (he also wrote the screenplay), The Legend of Hell House follows a group of scientist and mediums hired to investigate “life after death” and the supernatural in the “Mount Everest of haunted houses” known as the Belasco House – which was owned by an evil man Emeric Belasco.
Although the film moves at a pretty brisk pace and Matheson took out some of the more disturbing scenes from the book, The Legend of Hell House has some rich atmosphere; some great performances from its cast (who are pushed to the edge as they explore the house and its history); and a scare or two along the way.
Like The Haunting, the film doesn’t quite live up to the potential of the book, but it is one of the better “haunted house” films to come out of the 1970s and will keep you talking about it long after the film has finished. It also created a great villain and ending reveal in the Emeric Belasco character.
Night of the Living Dead
The film that gave birth to the zombie craze (other zombie films had been made, but never quite as good) and introduced the world to George A. Romero (one of horror’s greatest directors), Night of the Living Dead is just as disturbing today as it was in 1968.
The film has the ability to feel epic and claustrophobic at the same time, as seven people are trapped inside a farmhouse as the dead rise very hungry for brains and flesh. Romero proves he is a master of making the most of the film’s $114,000 budget and fills the screen with enough gore and blood to cause the film’s release to be mired in controversy due to a lack of rating to prevent young children from seeing it.
Romero also shot it in black and white which added to the film’s rich atmosphere and creepy setting. The black and white seemed to be both a tribute to horror’s past mixed with enough violence to let horror fans know it was the future of the genre.
Often imitated but never made better, Night of the Living Dead remains one of the greatest horror films ever released and deserves to be at the top of any “best of” list for the genre.
Directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck, Nosferatu demonstrated just how scary a vampire could be in 1922, and continues to be one of the best vampire films ever released. An unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (they couldn’t get the rights to use the book’s names and story elements), the film is a true masterpiece and manages to be just as haunting today thanks to its rich use of atmosphere and Schreck’s creepy performance as Count Orlok.
The plot follows the same storyline of Dracula (so much so that Stoker’s heirs sued the filmmakers and the court ruled the film be destroyed). There are several differences to the Dracula character – such as Orlok having to avoid sunlight or be destroyed and his killing his victims rather than turning them into vampires.
What makes Nosferatu continue to be one of the greatest vampire films ever made is Schreck’s incredible make-up and Murnau’s use of shadow to give the film its signature look and feel. Bela Lugosi is rightfully credited for giving Dracula his iconic look and sound (the image many fans still first think of when you mention the character), but Schreck’s make-up continues to be one of the most haunting vampire look ever brought to screen. He is the actor who made audiences truly fear the vampire, and the make-up continues to be the most frightening vision brought to the screen.
It was the film that made everyone scared to take a shower and remains a shocker no matter how many times you watch it. Directed by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock and shot in shocking black and white, Psycho broke new ground in terror through its violence; made the audience unable to sit easy by killing off a major star early; and had a twist that is hard to see coming even after multiple viewings.
Hitchcock proved to be a master of filmmaking through his violent confrontation between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Norman’s mother. He put the horror of the violence right in the audience’s face, but shot it in a way where they truly didn’t see a thing.
As Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins created one of cinema’s greatest monsters – a clean-cut man who just happened to have his mother for his best friend. Norman is both terrifying and tragic at the same time, and Perkins is able to make the most of the character without even seeming to try.
As scary as the shower scene was or the big reveal of Norman’s mother, the true unsettling scares come in the final moments of the film as Norman sits in a police station staring at a fly on his hand. His mother is giving voice-over about how she wouldn’t even hurt a fly and Perkins looks at the camera and smiles. It is a simple scene, but leaves you terrified as the final credits roll.
Even in horror there still seems to be some things that are a tad off limits – such as hurting babies or pregnant women. Rosemary’s Baby broke all rules by having poor Mia Farrow‘s Rosemary not only tormented the entire film by her Satanist neighbors but also raped by Satan – the daddy of her child.
The film’s success gave birth to several knockoffs featuring crazy Satanist and their wild schemes for global domination. None of them could top the chills and uneasy mood of Roman Polanski’s film.
Based on the best-selling novel by Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby moves at a slow pace and does feel dated by today’s standards, but every minute of the film is filled with an uneasy dread. As poor Rosemary starts to feel like she is losing her mind and go through the physical challenges of carrying the devil’s baby, Mia Farrow goes from being truly beautiful and full of life to gaunt and death like.
Her performance can get a tad annoying (as do some of the neighbors), but the film more than makes up for any flaws with incredible twist and an ending that is just so out there it leaves the audience speechless. It isn’t a film that makes you instantly watch it again, but each viewing manages to be just as disturbing as the first time.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the novel by Stephen King, The Shining is a film so layered with terror that you find something new every time you view it. The film is the perfect definition of psychological horror combined with classic supernatural haunted house ingredients.
Featuring iconic performances from Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, The Shining moves at a slow pace to build its terror and hook its audience. Is Nicholson’s Jack Torrance just going crazy from the isolation? Is the Overlook Hotel simply haunted? Or is it some combination of both? Regardless of the answers, the film will simply scare the hell out of you.
A master filmmaker, Kubrick manages to take this massive hotel and its even more massive grounds and give it such a claustrophobic feel at times it feels like the characters have no prayer of escaping into the larger world. The final moments of the film are pure terror as Nicholson stalks his family and it feels as if he might be stalking the audience itself.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Another horror film that changed the genre forever, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains one of the most frightening films ever made thanks to its low-budget grainy look (which makes it feel like some kind of documentary or snuff film) and extreme violence (even though Hooper doesn’t show much of it actually on the screen).
Shot for less than $300,000, Hooper managed to give the genre one of its greatest monsters with Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) – a killer who wears his victim’s face for a mask and prefers a chainsaw for dispatching annoying college kids who stumble onto his property.
By today’s standards the film seems very predictable and the audience is somewhat at ease in knowing what is coming, but there is no denying the film’s ability to still send shivers down the spine and cause you to feel more than a little queasy when the chainsaw starts to rev up followed by the screaming.
The picture and sound haven’t aged well and it feels very dated, but these elements just add to its almost documentary look – which helps it feel even more terrifying.
Universal Monster Films
The monsters that put horror on the map and continue to be some of the best horror films ever made came out of the 1930s and 1950s with the Universal Pictures release of Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Not only did these films terrorize their audiences, they established some of the genre’s biggest icons with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Claude Rains.
They also created the iconic look for their monsters – something that has yet to be topped when the films are remade for today’s audience. No one can beat the make-up work done in the first Frankenstein film, or top Lugosi’s cool line delivery as he introduces himself as Dracula or talks about the wonderful music the children of the night make.
The films showed how horror could span from the supernatural to science run amok. Dracula and The Mummy are evil creatures from beyond the grave. The Wolfman is a tragic creature cursed by the supernatural. Frankenstein and The Invisible Man demonstrate the dangers of science going too far in the quest for new discoveries. Creature from the Black Lagoon showed sometimes the terror can be found in nature itself, and made you question going into the water long before a certain shark brought on that fear.
As dated as these films feel today with their style of acting and production values, there is no doubting their ability to terrify their audiences when they first arrived on the big screen. They are true treasures to any fan of the horror genre, and a great way to spend a rainy weekend.
List updated Feb 16, 2016.
This is a list of some of our favorite classic horror movies that arrived between 1922 and 1980, what horror films make your “best of” lists for this time period?