5 classic horror movies that’ll give you the creeps this Halloween

By

Most things are scarier in black and white. Photo: Prana Film
Most things are scarier in black and white. Photo: Prana Film

In case the giant bags of candy on prominent display at every store that sells food didn’t tip you off, Halloween is coming up. Some people celebrate by dressing up and going to parties or scoring free sweets from their neighbors, but I prefer to spend my Spooky Night with some tiny bags of sour gummis and a selection of horror movies.

If that sounds like a solid evening to you, this will be a treat. Cult of Mac is recommending 25 movies this week, and we’ve arranged them into themed categories. Today, we’re building up your historical base with some classics.

House on Haunted Hill 1959
I dunno; I can’t really see him murdering anyone. Photo: William Castle Productions

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Director: William Castle
Runtime: 74 minutes
Availability: Netflix (disc and streaming), Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes

In House on Haunted Hill, Vincent Price stars as Frederick Loren, a morbid millionaire hosting a party in a notorious, haunted house. The twist: Any guest who survives the night will receive $10,000. If it sounds cheesy, that’s all part of the fun. And for a low-budget, haunted-house movie, it has a solid script with some interesting twists and fun banter between Loren and his wife Annabelle.

Do they hate each other? Are they murderers? Or is threatening to kill each other just what they’re into as a couple? I almost wanted to cut the haunted house and just watch them argue for an hour, but House on Haunted Hill also has some ghosts pulling some ghostly stuff, and that’s pretty entertaining, too.

— — —

Nosferatu 1922
This is about as far from Edward Cullen as you can get. Photo: Prana Film

Nosferatu (1922)

Director: F.W. Murnau
Runtime: 81 minutes
Availability: Netflix (disc and streaming), Amazon Instant Video, iTunes

This silent masterpiece is probably the most obvious pick on the list, but it’s famous because it’s so damned good.

Nosferatu was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, but it only shares a few elements with its source. That was probably to avoid a lawsuit from Stoker’s widow, but the film is better for having to be different. The villainous Graf Orlock is still one of the most unsettling movie monsters ever.

This film is also the origin of the trope that sunlight kills vampires — or at least one of the first. That’s a little vampire history for you.

— — —

Freaks 1932
You’ll never guess who the real monsters are. Hint: not the freaks. Photo: MGM

Freaks (1932)

Director: Tod Browning
Runtime: 63 minutes
Availability: Netflix (disc), Amazon Instant Video, iTunes

Tod Browning directed Universal Studios’ “proper” adaptation of Dracula. This movie is not Dracula.

More melodrama than straight-up horror, Freaks tells the story of a conniving, money-grubbing trapeze artist who marries a carnival dwarf for his money. Then bad things happen to everyone. All of the sideshow performers in the film actually came from the circus, including a man with no arms and legs. And he gets an entire scene that’s just him rolling and smoking a cigarette because why wouldn’t you want to see that?

More traditional horror elements emerge in the final scenes, and after all the parlor drama that happens up until then, the resolution of the plot is surprisingly terrifying and contains at least one image that will haunt you for years.

— — —

Cat People 1942
Good idea; just stay in the pool. Because cats. Photo: RKO

Cat People (1942)

Director: Jacque Tourneur
Runtime: 73 minutes
Availability: Netflix (disc), Amazon Instant Video, iTunes

Here’s some fun trivia for you: One of the conditions of producer Val Lewton’s job as head of the horror unit at RKO Pictures was that his supervisors got to name everything he made. And that wording is misleading because it didn’t mean that they would watch finished projects and then come up with a title. It meant that they had a list of names for Lewton to make films from. And that’s why we have movies in the world called The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie.

Another contractual term was that every production had a budget cap of $150,000 (approximately $2.2 million in today’s money). That meant Lewton couldn’t spend a whole lot on costumes and make-up. And when you’re making a movie that must be called Cat People, that might be a problem.

The elegant solution Lewton devised was to imply everything and let viewers’ minds provide the horror. It really works — Cat People is an effective, atmospheric and occasionally very scary film about a woman who becomes a giant panther when she gets aroused (no, really). They tap-dance around that part because it was 1942, but you know what’s happening.

— — —

The Old Dark House 1932
That butler is getting awfully familiar. Photo: Universal Pictures

The Old Dark House (1932)

Director: James Whale
Runtime: 72 minutes
Availability: Netflix (disc)

Like Tod Browning (Dracula), James Whale directed another of Universal Studios’ iconic monsters in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Also like Browning, Whale followed up his classic with a more personal project that isn’t quite a horror film.

The Old Dark House has murderous maniacs, thunderstorms and the eponymous creepy building, but Whale puts so much weird humor in that the film ceases to be truly scary and becomes darkly hilarious.

Frankenstein star Boris Karloff shows up in an even less vocal role as a mute butler who’s a bit of a crazy drunk. But the real charm of this film is in the subtle touches that come from Whale himself. Most prominent is his obvious displeasure with a studio-enforced romantic subplot. So he gives in and shoots the romantic scenes, but one takes place in a barn with the sound of pigs all around, and the other is drowned out by supporting actor Charles Laughton’s snoring. It’s almost parody, but the movie retains enough atmosphere and charm to make it an unsung horror classic.

Deals of the Day

  • JCat_NY

    What’s more scarier is I finally found someone with taste in horror movies, instead of the best in torture porn!

  • Brian Bethel

    NO mention of the famous 1963 adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House?” Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” is a classic of the genre, relying on psychological terror to telegraph fear, rather than cheap tricks. You can count the special effects on one hand, and that’s what makes them truly special. When a character’s breath steams in a room where there’s a cold spot, for example, you know something very wrong is happening. And yes, it’s shot in beautiful black and white.