Staff Picks: Classic Horror Movies

Tomorrow is Halloween, the day that marks the culmination of spooky activities for the year. Hopefully you’ve had a chance to indulge in your favorite treats, finish your costume, carve your pumpkins, and, of course, settle down for a bone-chilling flick. If you’re still on the hunt for a nightmare-inducing fright fest, take a look at the films keep the REBEAT staffers up at night.

1) Nosferatu (1922)

Picked by: AJB

Like any good ’90s kid, my first introduction to the ghoulish vampire Nosferatu was through an episode of the Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? in which a somewhat-modernized version of the villain emerges from the screen of a movie theatre and terrorizes the protagonist children — along with the totally freaked-out viewer. I’m a fan of silent movies, and always loved Lon Chaney’s version of Phantom of the Opera, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t had more than a few sleepless nights after watching Nosferatu. Just the sight of his almost scarecrow-like silhouette in a doorway is enough to send me diving under the covers. Vampires are impervious to covers, right?

2) & 3) Dracula (1931)

Picked by: James Ryan

I can’t honor only one horror film; I have to honor two. Two films symbiotically attached and intertwined thanks to their themes, their scripts, and their production schedules. Which are two facets of the same story, that of Brahm Stokers’ immortal Count. There’s, of course, the Laemmles’ that everyone remembers, the depiction where Bella Lugosi channels our fears of darkness, foreigners, the rich, and women allowed to act on their impulses, directed by a man fighting his own demons at the same time.  It’s rich, atmospheric, and has a reputation that has drawn in viewers for decades.

And then, there’s the other version, the Spanish-language production directed by George Melford, with Carlos Villiaras as the Count:

Where Browning went with his gut, Melford went with his eye, using precision as he shot during the night on the same sets used in daylight by Browning and his crew. Despite not knowing a single word of Spanish, he got his crew to go deeper into their characters than the Anglos did, giving the material that Cue translated out of Fort’s screenplay a chance to go places that the English speakers couldn’t. (The Spanish crew had the advantage of not having to worry about the Hays Office, but even without this edge they probably would have still come out the better in a head-to-head.)

Much like Nosferatu noted above, the Spanish version laid dormant for years before being rediscovered. It’s a gem in and of its own self, but without the English film for comparison, the production of which during daylight made it possible, Villarias’ Count would never have awakened years later.  Like the Brides of Dracula, the three women summoned by their master, Villarias and Lugosi are ever at the beck and call of the Prince of Evil; neither would have stood without being summoned, and their characters cannot break from their lord Stoker’s master of evil, making them the perfect embodiment of vampiric hierarchy.

4) Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Picked by: Sally O’Rourke

Modern audiences tend to think of classic-era horror films as quaint, boring, and, above all, definitely not scary. Before the moralistic, censoring Motion Picture Production Code was put into effect in 1934, however, Hollywood was free to include as much lurid and gruesome material as audiences could take. Island of Lost Souls, the first screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr Moreau, is filled with all sorts of pre-Code atrocities, including disturbing depictions of sadism, vivisection, and hints of bestiality.

Shipwrecked man Edward Parker takes refuge on an unchartered island home to the scientist Dr. Moreau, played with relish and charisma by the great Charles Laughton. Parker soon realizes, however, that the good doctor’s experiments are far more disturbing than he could have imagined. In short, Dr Moreau is performing surgeries and other horrific processes on animals in order to transform them into humans. The scariest part of the movie isn’t the beast-men that Moreau creates, though, but the mind of the man who conceives and carries out these human-animal hybrids. In a reversal of horror tropes, the audience cheers for these “monsters” to break free and overthrow the “normal” humans — not too different from the cult classic Freaks, released the same year.

Island of Lost Souls pulls few punches, from its flat-out nastiness to its ultrarealistic creature makeup. Decades later, it would later become staple of late-night TV, appealing to artists and musicians who responded to its “freaks versus norms” theme. It’s the inspiration for much of Devo’s mythology (including the “are we not men?” chants from “Jocko Homo”), songs by Blondie and Oingo Boingo, and even the name of “Jump Around” rap group House of Pain. And because you can’t have a classic horror movie without Bela Lugosi, he turns up here in a small but memorable performance as the Sayer of the Law, the leader of Moreau’s beast-men. Over the years, vampires and mummies may have lost their power to shock, but a film that delves into the potential for human depravity will always be terrifying.

5) Carnival of Souls (1962)

Picked by: Liam Carroll

Kansas-based filmmaker Herk Harvey spent most of his career churning out educational and industrial films at a prolific pace (odds are you’ve seen one or two of them if you’re a Joel-era MST3K fan). He only made one feature, but it was an artful chiller more than capable of single-handedly securing his legacy. Carnival of Souls tells the gristly tale of a young woman who leaves her old life behind following a tragic drag racing accident to become a hermetic church organist in a new town. Which is all fine and good, except for the ghoulish man (played by Harvey himself) that seems to follow her wherever she goes, beckoning her to an abandoned seaside pavilion to dance with him and his fellow ghouls… for all eternity. Admittedly, that kinda throws a wrench into her plan.

Carnival of Souls is the perfect blend of technical talent and true artistry, one that could only come from a filmmaker like Harvey, who at this point could probably shoot a competent film in his sleep, and therefore had the skill to back up his artistic vision. There are plenty of meat-and-potatoes spooks and scares to be found here (complete with eerie organ soundtrack!), but this is far from your average B-movie drive-in schlock; the film possesses the type of dreamlike beauty you’d expect to see from a European art house auteur like Jean Cocteau, who revolutionized many of the neat in-camera tricks that Harvey takes advantage of here. If you’re looking for the shocker of all time that will sweep you into a new dimension of picture-making this Halloween, look no further.

6) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Picked by: Louie Pearlman

I remember being a teenager, often spending an inordinate amount of time in the horror section of my local video store, trying to pick the absolute best choice for a night of popcorn and scares. I needed to work myself up to this one and it didn’t disappoint. Dark and foreboding from the first flash-pop of the opening scene to the frenzied, chainsaw-swinging end, first-time director Tobe Hooper did so much with so little.

Setting a pervasive tone of documentary-style doom over the whole proceedings is the excellent cinematography by Daniel Pearl. Also making this film stand out from other slasher-movies of the era are the convincing and delirious performances Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal and, of course, Gunner Hansen as the pre-Freddy and proto-Jason, Leatherface. Apparently the shooting schedule on this film was so breakneck that cast members exhausted from working long days cracked and had legit emotional breaks while shooting their scenes. It shows and makes the film unrelentingly difficult to watch.

If you need some sociological subtext with your violence and gore, one can look at the plot of the original Texas Chainsaw (about a family of backwoods cannibals terrorizing and eating a group of kids on a trip through Texas) as a statement on food politics, vegetarianism, and the base human desire to subjugate others we deem weaker than us. This is good, smart horror and not for the faint of heart — or stomach.

7) Suspiria (1977)

Picked by: Sharon Lacey

As someone who grew up in the golden age of video rentals, where the horror movie was king, choosing my favorite scary film is pretty much impossible. There’s quite a few that haven’t made this list that not only creeped the hell out of me as a kid but turned me into the film buff I am today. I’m talking Halloween, An American Werewolf In London, Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing, The Evil Dead and the masterpiece that is The Exorcist, which I first saw on a bad quality bootlegged VHS which only seemed to make it all the more terrifying (the movie was never released on home video in the UK until 1999  because of the video nasty controversy in the early 1980s).

In the end, it was either Romero or Argento, and the Italian master won the day with the visually stunning Suspira from 1977, about a ballet student who uncovers ancient witchcraft and dark secrets at her new dance academy. I think one of the most unsettling things about Suspira is just how unnaturally and almost brutally colorful it is, like a Technicolor nightmare that is violently vibrant. The first 15 minutes in particular are like something from a terrible dream: surreal and uneasy ending with the first strange and shocking bloody murders. The score, too, by Italian prog rockers Goblin, is intensely creepy and brilliantly used throughout. You get the feeling that John Carpenter must have seen and been influenced by this movie just before he made his classic, Halloween. Its influence is also seen in more recent films with Darren Aronofsky even referencing it in his award-winning ballet chiller Black Swan.

I was actually lucky enough to interview director Dario Argento back when The Mother Of Tears, the final part of his The Three Mothers trilogy, came out in 2007 (Suspira is the first part and Inferno the second). I was pleasantly surprised to find in real life Argento is charmingly sweet, gentle, and funny; it was hard to imagine him being such a master of horror with a head full of enthralling dark tales, but that’s exactly what he is and Suspira is absolute proof of this. It’s also arguably his greatest film ever.

8) Alien (1979)

Picked by: Pam Sosnowski

It’s been 35 years since Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror classic Alien was released in theaters, and its infamous tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” still gives me the heebie jeebies. I can sleep like a baby after watching an insane Jack Nicholson pursue his family with an ax in The Shining, but for some reason the implausible notion of an extraterrestrial creature bursting out of people’s chests is guaranteed insomnia for me. And yet, I love every minute of Alien. It was groundbreaking in so many ways — average looking people cast for the working class crew of the spacecraft Nostromo, Sigourney Weaver as Hollywood’s first female in a heroic lead, fantastical sets, and old school special effects that still hold up today, CGI be damned.

Dare I say it, but the alien himself (which Scott wisely keeps hidden most of the time) was kind of sexy for a movie monster — not surprising given artist/designer H.R. Giger’s penchant for sexual imagery, which also shows up in the film. And of course, there is that scene, where one of my favorite British actors, John Hurt, goes out with a death so horrific but iconic that even newer fans of the movie bow down to him. The original theatrical trailer from 1979, above, is one of the best movie trailers I’ve ever seen, astoundingly scary and revealing very little, other than hinting that some serious intergalactic shit is about to get real.

9) The Shining (1980)

Picked by: Lindsay Stamhuis

My friends and I used to have these epic Halloween sleepovers where we’d stay up waaay too late eating waaay too much junk food and watching waaay too many scary movies that always seemed to give everyone but me nightmares. This was around the time that Scream first came out; of course my pals were going to be heavily influenced by Wes Craven-style gore fests. Me? I was always way more freaked out by films that wriggle their way inside your head to fester. And to this day, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is the film that does this best for me. The horror elements take their time emerging, and there are only a few, fleeting grisly or shocking images (the elevator scene, the twin girls, the bathroom in room 237).

It’s not a slasher flick, it’s not about monsters jumping out from behind closed doors or chasing people around as abandoned summer camp. You could even argue that there isn’t really an antagonist in the film, unless you count the Overlook Hotel itself. That, or maybe we’re all capable of being monsters. (This is what I mean! Psychological!) People have spent considerable energy picking apart Kubrick’s precise intentions, the overarching themes, the meaning behind every shot in the film, and the departures from Stephen King’s novel. But I think over-analysis takes away from the terrifying magic of what I firmly believe is one of the last great psychological horror films of the 20th century.

Did we miss your favorite scary movie? Let us know in the comments!