Halloween is a perfect time to let our patrons (and ourselves) indulge fantasies of joy and fright. These emotions are closer to each other than we often admit and are inextricably linked in the twentieth-century phenomenon of horror films. The gothic novel (which must have been one of the favorite guilty pleasures of the nineteenth century) has become a richly varied film genre that now includes films about ghosts and other supernatural beings, slicer/dicer psychopaths, radioactive mutants, and space aliens–some of which occasionally cross-pollinate with other genres such as the western and the slapstick comedy.
The list that follows is meant to be a core list of classic (or should-be classic) horror films of a gentler nature (no Freddy or Jason or death by lawn equipment here).
The titles below are available at home-use prices (the final criteria for selection). NOTE: The dates given are the dates of the original release of the film, rather than any individual video release.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Republic Pictures. 1919. 60min. $11.95.
This black-and-white silent German classic was a melding of contemporary film and drama. Expressionism, the dramatic aesthetic at the time, is reflected in the famous sets, the expressionist acting styles, and the convoluted plot. A must for any collection. Directed by Robert Wiene.
Cat People. Baker & Taylor. 1942. 73min. $19.95.
An acknowledged classic in understated. suggestive horror, this black-and-white movie, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, portrays a Yugoslavian girl who thinks she turns into a panther. The horror grows from sound effects, skilled camera use. and other atmospheric devices.
Dracula. Baker & Taylor. 1931. 84min. $14.95,
Face it. Despite the best efforts of Dreyer, Herzog, and Rice, Tod Browning’s black-and-white version is the Dracula–the one we all picture whenever the word vampire is uttered.
Frankenstein, Baker & Taylor. 1931. 71 min. $14.95.
Director James Whale, photographer Arthur Edeson, and actor Boris Karloff crafted an ageless film that still pleases in a restored black-and-white version. Its popularity and influence set filmdom on a new course.
Haunting. MGM/UA Home Entertainment. 1963. 112min. $19.95.
A scientist, a skeptic, and some mediums stay in a haunted house for a scary weekend of being terrorized by the unknown. Robert Wise directed this truly suspenseful black-and-white film.
The Lift. Media Home Entertainment. 1985. 95min. $59.95
This little-known thriller (with English subtitles) by Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas is low in budget but high in satisfaction. Unexpectedly, an office elevator begins killing its passengers, and no one is safe, until the maintenance man is called in for repairs. Good atmospherics abound.
Lost Boys. Warner. 1987. 92min. $14.95.
This movie is a very successful updating of the vampire legend to modern days and modern ways, as way-cool teens contend with the way-cool undead. Lushly photographed and scored, this mixes humor with suspense and mocks the oh-so-jaded among us.
The Mummy. Baker & Taylor. 1932. 72min. $14.95.
Boris Karloff is the mummy and protector of the reincarnation of his beloved Egyptian princess. Maybe director Karl Freund and the crew were smoking some of those old herbs, since this is a dreamy, languid, stylized horror piece.
Near Dark. HBO Home Video. 1987. 94min. $19.99.
If you only see one modern-day vampire movie, make it this one. A cowboy is “drafted” by a van full of drifting bloodsuckers who haven’t an ounce of conscience among them. The script, direction, photography, and special effects all work together to produce a feeling of true horror. This is how it would be if vampires were here now.
Night of the Living Dead. Republic Pictures. 1968. 98min. $19.95.
George Romero’s low-budget black-and-white classic still packs a wallop. It may be the picture’s newsreel quality, but it still feels real. Some of the cannibal scenes seem like outtakes from some early nature documentary. Tacky or not, it belongs in most collections.
Nosferatu. Grapevine Video. 1921. 84min. $19.95.
One of the most beautiful films ever made, F. W. Murnau’s silent black-and-white version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula starred Max Schreck as the count. The feelings of dread and true horror and the undying style are drawn from German expressionist sets, lighting, and acting.
Parents. Live Home Video. 1988. 81 min. $14.98.
One of the darkest, least-familiar black comedies around, this is set in suburban Indiana in the 1950s where a young boy slowly discovers that his parents are cannibals. As deftly handled as anyone could want. The blood-saturated dream sequences alone are worth the viewing. The film stars Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, and Sandy Dennis in her most bizarre role.
Phantom of the Opera. Nostalgia Family Video. 1925. 94min. $24.95.
Lon Chaney’s vehicle for immortality has been seen by almost everyone, but this black-and-white silent classic is still one of the most-often-screened Halloween films.
Rosemary’s Baby. Baker & Taylor. 1968. 137min. $14.95.
Roman Polanski’s film of the Ira Levin novel presents the horror of the corruption of motherhood, all done in an atmosphere of ordinariness. Still a delight after all these years.
Spiders. Kino on Video. 1919. 137 min. $29.95.
Fritz Lang’s lost, half-completed adventure serial has much of the atmospherics of a horror film. A criminal band seeks to dominate the world through terror and thuggery. Karl Freund’s photography and the awesome use of New World locations create an entertaining movie with some genuine horror experiences.
Vampyr. Nostalgia Family Video. 1932. 75min. silent. $24.95.
The other classic silent vampire film. Carl Dreyer’s adaptation of the story “Carmilla,” by Sheridan Le Fanu, is a masterpiece of suggestion, of the horror in the corner-of-the-eye glimpse of something that should not be there.