If there’s one thing that brings a sense of excitement to people’s lives it’s watching classic black-and-white horror movies. Despite how far horror has evolved today, it’s fun to sit back and revisit what the genre had to offer in years past; with films like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon still inspiring audiences today like they did when they were in theaters. But like many things from the past, a lot of great horror films from the monochrome era have slowly been lost to time. Chances are that many people today think of the Universal Monsters as the only canon from that era, but there are many monochrome gems from yesteryear that deserve to be seen by anyone who considers themselves a horror fan.
Here are some of the best ones the genre has to offer.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Considered by many historians as the peak of German Expressionism (and even “the world’s first horror film” by Roger Ebert), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a beautiful and inventive tale of madness and anxiety. The film tells the mysterious story of a hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who controls a sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) to do his every, bloody bidding. Alongside its unique visuals and set design, its story-framing and cinematography holds an influence that can be seen today with modern horror classics like The Witch and The Babadook. It’s essential viewing for horror fans and cinephiles everywhere.
For all the love that docu-dramas get, it’s unfortunate to not see something like Häxan be widely remembered today. Its title derived from the Swedish word for “witch” (as well as being the coolest-sounding word ever), Häxan is a multi-part dissertation about the history and controversies of witchcraft, interspersed with dramatic reenactments of crucial moments from the practice’s history. With its final restoration running at 105 minutes, the film is a cultural benchmark in genre history, combining the documented absurdism that centered around coven culture with an inventive approach to tell its history in the most vivid way possible. While the appeal of Häxan didn’t catch on quickly at the time, its reach on art that aims to capture realism with spectacle can be felt immensely in things like The Exorcism of Emily Rose or even in popular documentary shows today like Dark Side of the Ring.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
More than a Spongebob punchline (although who wouldn’t want to have that legacy?), Nosferatu is a straight-up masterpiece. There’s not a lot that can be said about it that hasn’t been said already, as this unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is still highly regarded to this day, with its story and curiosity behind its creation adapted into other great horror films like Nosferatu the Vampyre and Shadow of the Vampire. While another remake is finally underway from Witch director Robert Eggers, it’ll be a tough feat to capture the eeriness and atmosphere that Nosferatu’s other derivatives have struggled to reach. Some things just aren’t like the original.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
While many assume The Man Who Laughs to be an obscure mark in horror history, the film itself plays off as less of a horror film than the melodramatic action film it really is. Scarred by a king as a child, a circus freak named Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) finds himself involved in royal drama when a duchess (Olga Baclanova) becomes interested in him. The film’s legacy is upheld by Veidt’s timeless performance and appearance, which would eventually serve as inspiration for the look of the Joker. Despite this obvious connection, The Man Who Laughs is a fun romp that’s layered with cool horror overtones.
Another film that’s less horrific than it is disturbing comes in the form of the aptly-titled Freaks. The controversial film centered around a group of sideshow performers and featured actors with real-life disabilities in a narrative that handled them in a more sympathetic way than expected at the time. Many critics argue about the film’s fascinating approach to inclusion and class conflict, while also stating it to be a film with some incredible displays of cinematic horror. A genuine cult classic, Freaks is a truly forgotten black-and-white film (the abridged cut can still be seen today, as its original version no longer exists) that should be preserved to the utmost importance.
Cat People (1942)
Much like the Paul Schrader-directed remake and the killer Bowie track of the same name, Cat People is a banger of a time. A fashion designer (Simone Simon) believes that her husband is cheating on her with one of his coworkers. She also believes that her bloodline is from a tribe of people who animorph into panthers whenever they’re turned on. It’s awesome! No further notes at this time.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Partly-known for its Oscar-winning cinematography (the first of notable albeit rare wins for horror), this adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel of the same name is also remembered for its star-studded cast, with George Sanders in the titular role and the recently-passed Angela Lansbury as Sibyl. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a story about love, murder, and the consequences that come with vanity. If you’re looking for a slice of golden age Hollywood sleaze and terror, this film suits nicely.
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Looking back on the premise for House on Haunted Hill makes me wonder if a remake of this would play well with today’s audiences. Yes, the already-good remake from 1999 still exists, but the idea about a couple who invite five strangers to stay in a supposedly haunted house for money sounds like, well, money! Haunted Hill is another sacred piece of viewing material for any horror fan, as its exciting sequences and gothic set design can still be appreciated by many today.
Another horror film that requires no introduction and is practically perfect in every way (Gus van Sant sure thought so). Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a testament to building tension, hysteria, and upending audience’s expectations. One of the greatest kills in film history (which couldn’t be done without the iconic Janet Leigh), one of the best lead performances in a horror film in Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, and one of the greatest slashers to not put on for Mother’s Day, Psycho’s influence is literally manic.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Also known as that cool poster you haven’t logged yet on Letterboxd, Eyes Without a Face tells the story of a guilt-ridden plastic surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) who seeks to repair the face of his once-beautiful daughter (Édith Scob). His solution? To kidnap young women to transplant their faces onto hers. Sounds reasonable. This landmark in French horror went on to influence other great films about faces coming off like Corruption, The Skin I Live In, and obviously Face/Off, while also serving as inspiration for the look of Micheal Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Serving as a precursor to some of the atmospheric tones and ambiguity you’d find in something from David Lynch or George A. Romero, Carnival of Souls remains a low-budget cult classic within the horror genre. When a lonely young woman moves into a new town, she finds herself drawn toward something mysterious lurking behind an abandoned circus. The film is a haunting account of isolation, with an ending that’s sure to stick with you for sometime after the credits roll.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The quintessential zombie movie, and arguably the most important independent film of all time, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead accepts no substitutes (though some of its sequels beg to differ). Whether it’s the impeccable lead performance by Duane Jones, the iconic quotes that are still recited today, or its devastating final sequence and the impact it had at the time of its release, Night of the Living Dead is an important film in both the history of the horror genre and the medium as a whole, and can still be as provoking as it was back when it was released in 1968.
We go from proto-Lynchian tales of terror to the debut film from the maestro himself in Eraserhead. Eternally at odds with Holy Mountain or Rocky Horror for its status as the king of midnight movies, David Lynch’s charming film about a poor man named Henry (the incredible Jack Nance) is still considered to be his best work. The film keeps you on your toes with its trademark absurdity and terrifying characters, and as a movie that’s kinda about parenting, leaves you in utter fright. Eraserhead, to put it frankly, shreds.