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Halloween is the time of the year where just about everyone sits down to watch a horror film of some kind, whether it be the latest in a beloved (and sometimes tired) franchise – here’s looking at you Jigsaw – a new and original film from an inexperienced director, or a classic of the genre. Often, the films from the 1970s are those that are most celebrated, with the likes of The Exorcist, Carrie, The Omen and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre offering many a scare and rightfully going down in history as some of the best the genre has ever produced. There is, however, a lot of fun in looking back to before the revolutionary 70s – and even further back than the 60s which saw the releases of Night of the Living Dead and Hitchcock’s The Birds – back to a time of golden-age classics. That’s why in this list, we at The Film Magazine offer you 5 must-watch horror films released in the years leading up to 1960, the year Psycho was released and changed the way horror was shot forever.
1. Psycho – 1960
Plot: A Phoenix secretary embezzles $40,000 from her employer’s client, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by a young man under the domination of his mother.
The above clip may be just about the most heavily analysed scene in the history of film school, and with good reason! Hitchcock changed the game, delivering spine-tingling scares in a way never seen before under much more strict guidelines on what was and was not acceptable in cinema at the time. The influence of this picture reaches far and wide, with the score being channelled for Jaws and the visual formula being emulated in the likes of Halloween. For the origins of much of what we take for granted in contemporary horror, see Psycho.
2. Freaks – 1932
Plot: A circus’ beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.
Freaks is about as outlandishly… well… “freaky” as it gets for 1930s cinema, though be warned that the film’s very premise could be considered insulting by today’s standards. The above plot-line says it all really [please note that it was taken from the official synopsis and does not feature terminology we would ordinarily use], and offers glimpses of the more rattling techniques used in the much more successful and light-hearted The Wizard of Oz, which followed in 1939. The above clip is a good example of what to expect, though beware that 1930s cinema wasn’t exactly embracing of the sort of blood and vicious imagery Hitchcock so wonderfully presented in our number 1 choice.
3. Bride of Frankenstein – 1935
Plot: Mary Shelley reveals the main characters of her novel survived: Dr. Frankenstein, goaded by an even madder scientist, builds his monster a mate.
Boris Karloff’s performance as Mary Shelley’s Monster in Frankenstein (1931) has come to define the character for eternity; the visual representation most of us imagine when thinking of Frankenstein’s Monster is indeed that of Karloff’s face buried beneath make-up and prosthetics. He returned to the role in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, which has gone down in history as an all-time classic Universal Monster Movie that embraced the themes of Shelley’s original novel and helped to create the love for the character as an on-screen presence that still holds strong today, as evidenced by the character’s presence in Universal’s Dark Universe (as kicked off by The Mummy – 2017). More of a monster movie than an out-and-out scare-fest, Bride of Frankenstein is an all-time must-see.
4. Dracula (1931)
Plot: The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.
Much like Boris Karloff lived to become the personification of Frankenstein’s Monster, Bela Lugosi lived to become the embodiment of Dracula. The Hungarian-born actor, much like his monstrous counterpart, remains an icon of cinema to this day – both in terms of his presentation of the character and as a star name – due to this film. It’s through his performance that the movie truly delivers, making it a must-watch pre-1960 horror film for anyone looking to see fantastic costume work and a classic character come to life.
5. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) – 1920
Plot: Hypnotist Dr. Caligari uses a somnambulist, Cesare, to commit murders.
Celebrated for its outstanding set design and high production values, as well as its tension setting techniques, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is one of the most respected films of all time, especially within the horror genre. In many ways, this 1920 release helped to create the genre on film, and its otherworldly presentation has many experts believing it to be the very best of the German Expressionism movement. With The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, we have come full-circle from our number 1 choice Psycho by offering another Film School classic: a movie that is unmissable for film lovers everywhere, especially at Halloween.
And there you have it, 5 classic horror films for you to consider this Halloween! Disagree with our picks? Have any suggestions of your own? Let us know in the comments…