If you’re a diehard horror fan, you no doubt recognize the strides that “classic” horror films took to get us where we are today. While these films are indeed respected, they are often considered hokey, now that the bar for our tolerance of fear has climbed so high in the last 85 or more years. Naturally, as we change as human beings, so do the fears and expectations of each passing generation, be it the result of advances in science, social norms or the general state of humanity. A great example, as much as I find the subtle shadow play and slow-burn dread of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN terrifying, younger folks may find Rob Zombie’s loose remake/revision to be a much more frightening and socially-relative film with its abrasive depiction of graphic violence. A quality horror film, and what is often recognized as a “classic”, is one that manages to stand the test of time and simply boil us back down to that state of primal fear. Though it seems, audiences sometimes forget that, aside from the Universal Monsters, there are an abundance of black and white chillers that could still satiate even the modern horror fan’s appetite for fear. The following list is five moments in old-school classic horror cinema that still get our hearts racing, our brows sweating and paint our knuckles white with anxiety. BE WARNED: SPOILERS FOLLOW, so tread carefully.
THE LEOPARD MAN-1943
It’s no secret that I have much admiration for Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. One of the charming things about their films are that their silly titles, like this entry, THE LEOPARD MAN, are incredibly deceiving. At first mention, people often assume these films are pure schlock, yet they are anything but. Leopard Man is a tense thriller that has quite a few shocking moments as it builds towards its climax. The best example is a sequence following after a performer loses a live leopard that was meant to liven up her stage act. A young girl, frightened to hear about the loose animal, begs her mother not to make her run up to the local store that evening–but to no avail. What follows, the journey to and from the store, is a masterful exercise in tension. We’re never given more information than our ill-fated young guide as she traverses through a dark and ominous underpass, startled by the same things that startle us, fearing the dreadful outcome that we also fear may come to fruition. The sequence is tightly woven and takes up less than ten minutes screen time, but feels like the longest trip to the store we’ve ever taken. Not until the child is halfway back home do we remember, we aren’t being shown this sequence for just any old reason, and that’s when she encounters the leopard under that same underpass. She manages to make it home but instead has been locked out by her mother who’s annoyed with the child for initially trying to avoid her trip and sneak back inside. While she screams in terror begging her mother to open the door, you can’t help but be reminded of a similar sequence in HALLOWEEN, except the latter’s sequence ironically ends much better. Instead of her mother opening the door and saving her daughter’s life, she takes too long trying to unlock it. While we see nothing graphic, we hear everything until it’s stifled by an abrupt silence–causing it to be all the more shocking when blood begins to run under the door towards her mother’s feet. Did I mention that this is only the beginning of the film?
DEAD OF NIGHT-1945
As far as anthology horror goes, DEAD OF NIGHT is still one of my favorites. Following Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) who is eerily drawn to a house of guests in the countryside, Night is mostly told through their recollections of situations involving the supernatural. Walter’s main reason for coming to the house is driven by the notion that he’s dreamt of the entire scenario, guests and all, and has randomly happened upon the house while on a drive. This mystery of Craig’s connection with the house frames the stories, culminating in a memorable climax. The stories of the guests are just as compelling. Memorable ones include: a creepy ventriloquist dummy that has more power of its owner (Michael Redgrave) than he of it, a young girl’s encounter with a murdered child during a Christmas party and a young man’s premonition of a fatal bus crash. Though the most shocking notion comes at the end, when a twist reveals that our protagonist’s destiny with the house was to murder one of the guests. Fans of anthology horror should seek out this lesser-known gem.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL-1959
It can easily be said that William Castle was the poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock. That’s no insult. Castle was a showman who knew exactly what his audiences wanted and maybe his films are considered “high-brow” but his films remain classics in their own right and are still a helluva lot of fun to this day. In HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, five strangers are invited to spend the night in an “actual haunted house” and will receive $10,000 each if they survive the night. Gimmicks and schlocky horror are in full swing, in what would become, Castle’s trademark horror film. The scene that truly horrifies though, happens while guests Nora Manning and Lance Shroeder are searching the basement for a stashed fortune. After splitting up to investigate why the conjoining wall of two rooms sounds more hollow at one end, Nora comes face to face with what was likely the most horrifying monster seen in film up to that point since Max Schreck’s NOSFERATU. It’s the typical classic “popcorn-in-the-air-scare” that Castle was such an expert at peppering through his films. Supposedly, after seeing the box office that House was reaping in, Alfred Hitchcock was inspired to make his own version of a fright flick– a little movie called PSYCHO.
HORROR HOTEL AKA THE CITY OF THE DEAD-1960
My next pick apparently also has relation to Alfred Hitchcock in the sense that the film’s structure, including its most shocking moment shares an abundance of similarities to PSYCHO‘s plotline. HORROR HOTEL is an awesome little satanic classic starring Christopher Lee about young coed Nan Barlow who travels to a small New England town to research its history of witchcraft. There are some delightfully weird unsettling scenes that the menacing Gothic set pieces accentuate and the overall design and cinematography are in top notch here. One example: while Nan tries to speak to a priest in the town’s church, cinematographer Desmond Dickinson shoots her close-up through the darkened church doors, adding to the air of mystery circulating around the fog-shrouded town and its inhabitants. Its most shocking moment? Just as our beautiful protagonist begins to peel back the layers of the town’s history, she’s unfortunately sacrificed to Satan. After researching it appears that, technically, Horror Hotel beat Hitchcock to the punch of killing off it’s beautiful blonde lead 20 minutes into the movie.
THIS NIGHT I’LL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE-1967
If you’re looking for classic cinema that rivals the nihilism of modern films, look no further than José Mojica Marins’ COFFIN JOE TRILOGY. The first, AT MIDNIGHT I’LL TAKE YOUR SOUL, introduces us to the ultimate anti hero, Coffin Joe (Zé do Caixão), the undertaker of a small Brazilian town. Joe is not exactly the friendliest of townsfolk: he’s both emotionally and physically abusive, murderous, soulless and nihilistic. He wants nothing more than to find a woman to bare him an immortal child that will continue his bloodline. The problem is, women aren’t exactly lining up to be with him, so most of his courting of them is done by force. In the second film, THIS NIGHT I’LL POSSESS YOUR SOUL, there is a brilliant nightmare sequence where Coffin Joe is banished to the bowels of Hell among its inhabitants who are writhing and screaming as they endure eternal torture. This stark contrast from black and white to Technicolor-like gore and lighting schemes are heavily reminiscent of what would become the style of Dario Argento and the sequence, as a whole, must have been quite shocking back then for audiences. Similarly to William Castle’s color sequence in his Diabolique-like THE TINGLER, the sudden burst of nauseating color serves to only amplify the horrors on display. The scene serves as merely just the cherry on top of the debauchery that goes on in The Coffin Joe Trilogy, so do yourself a favor and pick them up ASAP.