Whenever you make a Top Ten List, you invariably must make some very difficult choices as to what you must exclude. Because The Beard and I are, by nature, very inclusive, these decisions are innately difficult. However, the choosing is exactly why Top Ten Lists are fun. Movies have been around since 1878 when pictures were animated by stringing images together in a rapid series. Very early on, the innovators of the technology chose to expand their knowledge by exploiting overtly titillating genres to draw the biggest audiences and the most money. Therefore, horror movies have been around since the very beginning. Thomas Edison himself made a horror movie in 1910 based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel, demonstrating how the visual medium could be used to evoke suspense and scares.
Post-modern cinema owes a great debt of gratitude to its precursors, and so hopefully this will serve as a sufficient homage to the strongest horror movies of the pre-70s era. Unfortunately, I’m guilty of what is a too common refrain for millennials and centennials. Generally, when we think of old movies, we hearken back to our childhood, and relate old with the word classic, and that is not necessarily the case. When referring to one of my favorite movies of my childhood, on our Red Capers video #2, I mistakenly thought that “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” could be included on my list. It cannot because it was released in 1972 and my list is STRICTLY earlier than 1970. However, suffice it to say that I love this movie for the last 5 minutes. Much of this movie is a slog with a huge focus on camp, but some of the imagery is unforgettable, sober, and haunting. It’s available free and complete on YouTube. I decided to upload a teaser trailer here to give you a “taste.” LOL!
I have three honorable mentions before going to my list. It would be shortsighted to ignore silent films, as too artsy to be horrific. I think the 1925 version of “The Phantom of the Opera” is the scariest version of that story, including the original book by Gaston Leroux. It is said that the head of Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle was on vacation in Paris when he met Gaston Leroux who handed him a copy of his book. Laemmle read it in one night. (I don’t know about that, it’s a pretty big book.) He bought the rights to the book with the idea of having Lon Chaney play the Phantom. Chaney was given a great deal of latitude in constructing the face behind the mask. The skeletal and jutting cheekbones, darkened eye sockets, and thin flat hair is considered the most faithful visualization of Leroux’s description in the book. The unmasking of the Phantom is still, today, a startling and horrifying scene.
The Universal monsters are a BIG reason why this list was born. In a discussion with the Beard, I wondered as to how many I could include on this list, and still be authentic to the idea that these movies are supposed to be terrifying. I couldn’t include them all, despite the fact that there are some VERY capable contenders. For instance, “The Mummy” is seriously creepy and dark, but I did not include him here, because I don’t believe it was as significant as other monsters. My oldest son, Jordan, is a huge fan of “The Monster from the Black Lagoon”, but I couldn’t include it here despite some incredible under water sequences that still hold up today, because there are other movies that were a little more historically relevant. One such movie that is on my Honorable mentions is “The Wolfman” and I situate him here at the 12th spot, next to Lon Chaney, Senior. Lon Chaney Junior will always be the definitive Wolfman. His portrayal of the tortured soul of Larry Talbot evokes extreme empathy and plays on a very frequently used horror trope of “the monster who hates his monstrous nature.” Also, the transformation sequence is still pretty dang cool.
As you might have noted on my previous Top Ten List, I’m a big Slasher fan. During the Classic Period as I have defined it, there are no Slasher movies per se. However, there are what one might consider the seeds that engendered the sub genre — a prototype, if you will. Two came out in the same year, but I’ll only talk about one here. “Peeping Tom,” opened in 1960 to extremely negative reviews for its controversial content, which depicts a serial killer who kills women while filming their deaths. Now, it’s considered a cinematic classic for its innovation, whereas in its day, this was the epitome of low-brow cinema. Rife with Freudian symbolism and subtext this movie is a psychological experience that I would consider serious creep and stalk. The killing implement and camera angles are groundbreaking and worthy of the 11th spot on my list.
#10: Dracula (1931)
When I think of the definitive Dracula, Bela Lugosi is who I think of in the titular role. No other actor but Lugosi has been able to combine all of the elements that concoct a delicious alchemy of intensity, nobility, gentlemanly charm, eccentricity, and oh yes, EVIL. The Hungarian accent which seemed an impediment to allow him the prestige of being considered a “Leading Man” served him well as the Count. His eyes, the sardonic grin, the minimal speech, all proceeded to imbue in this movie a mood that the director Tod Browning wasn’t capable, in his limited scope of abilities, of conveying without Lugosi. There are other movies that illustrate that Lugosi was not a one-trick pony, an actor with profound ability, but his iconic portrayal of Dracula was such a humongous shadow cast that it was difficult to see him in other roles, so he continued to return to the role in various sequels. If he resented being tied to the role so much, he didn’t show it. Lugosi was buried in his Dracula cape.
#9: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
I have to admit that I find the 1978 version of this movie scarier; however, this is a far more important cinematic offering for its symbolism, subtext, and layered themes. Prominent among the themes was the perception that America was facing the imminent threat of McCarthyism and the possible threat of blind conformity. In either case, those things are determined to be bad. Ironically, the protagonist is Kevin McCarthy who plays Dr. Miles Bennell. He narrates the story while sitting in a hospital bed, communicating that there is an alien invasion occurring, but that rather than all-out war, the aliens are employing a subtle means. They are distributing pods throughout America, that adopt the facade of humans while they sleep, and the humans are being replaced by exact replicas. The explanation for the takeover is communicated in an exposition dump when Bennell is discovered in his office. The aliens want to create a harmonious world free from stress and emotion. As Captain Kirk once said, “I NEED my pain. . . Damn it, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves.” The pod people don’t care. According to them life would be so much simpler if we were all the same. That thought is TERRIFYING!
#8: Frankenstein (1931)
I recently viewed this movie and found many scenes that were disturbing, frightening, and difficult to watch. The movie opens with Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant digging up graves in the cemetery as if there is nothing unusual to this behavior. The animation of the monster is punctuated by Frankenstein shouting, “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive. In the name of God, now I know what it’s like to BE God.” The hubris of man in full display, except that in creating his monster, he doesn’t care for it the way he ought to, and thus his creation escapes to create havoc, unintentional though it may be. Lastly, the scene with the man running into town, holding his drowned daughter in his arms is heart-wrenching, that image seared into my mind until the day I die. The movie was directed by James Whale, and the monster was portrayed by another cinema icon, the equal of Lugosi and Chaney — Boris Karloff. If you haven’t seen it recently, I think you are doing yourself a disservice. This movie is not just a classic. It is truly a great film.
Tomorrow I will finish my Top Ten Classic Horror Movie list with the best seven movies before 1970. Hopefully, you like this list so far. If you do, please punch that LIKE button. If you disagree, COMMENT. Put up your list. Definitely be back tomorrow where I finish my list and continue providing you with entertaining geek content. So for now, “Goodbye!”