15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die
2020 has been scary enough, Dear Reader, and that's all the more reason to come out from under the bed and enjoy some "just pretend" stories with your favorite tricks and treats. The newest film on our roundup of Top 15 Halloween Classic Blu-rays is over 50 years old, so we're talking Old School here, yet you'll find that they still bring the goosebumps.
To speak truly, these titles aren't all spooky but spread a broad net into fantasy and dress-up spectacles, because Halloween is good for all that stuff. After all, we don't always want to be too frightened. This avalanche of new releases mostly comes from the indefatigable folks at Kino Lorber, but The War of the Worlds hails from Criterion. Since that's one of the year's best packages of any frightful classic, we'll begin our list with that film. But first, a message from our sponsors...
1. The War of the Worlds (1953) Director: Byron Haskin
Earth is invaded by Martians, "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic." Panic and havoc ensue, and certain scenes are scary as hell. Such is the first, still classic film version of The War of the Worlds, based on H.G. Wells' milestone novel of 1897 that manages to feel fresh and relevant to every generation.
Right there in the opening of his story, Wells spells out a political theme for his British readers: Imperial countries have invaded and conquered other peoples, so how would you feel if the same were visited upon you? "The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"
Some people think the ending, which the film preserves intact from the book, is anti-climactic. They mean that standard adventures focus on the active choices of heroes who bring about their salvation with luck and pluck and ingenuity, while Wells rejects such reassuring lullabies. His grim irony is that humans can do nothing to save themselves, but they may be spared by something infinitely smaller and humbler: microbes and germs.
This recognizes a scientific reality of exploration while it draws a humbling parallel with humans, themselves microbes on the universal scale ("infusoria under the microscope"). It also comments on our place in ecosystems. This ending isn't comforting but it's salutary, and we need to absorb it like any vaccine that makes us a little queasy before positive results.
This film's special effects look as dazzling today as when they won an Oscar. In fact, they look more dazzling than they have in decades. As this 4K restoration of the original Technicolor makes clear, the wires holding up the Martian ships weren't as visible as later generations have thought. After prints were replaced by cheaper Eastmancolor in the 1960s and the lighting scheme was made brighter, previously obscure wires became obvious. You can still spot a few wires if you look, but why look for them?
Barré Lyndon's script makes the connections to two world wars and Cold War nuclear jitters before thrilling us with destruction. Producer George Pal, director Byron Haskin, photographer George Barnes, effects supervisor Gordon Jennings, Oscar-nominated editor Everett Douglas, and art director Al Nozaki (who designed the manta ray ships with cobra heads) present a dazzling spectacle that got drafted into the National Film Registry. Kudos also to Leith Stevens' score, Chesley Bonestell's opening paintings, the Oscar-nominated sound mix, and Charles Gemora for designing and manipulating the freaky Martian suit.
Criterion's Blu-ray throws in some making-of's, commentary from the 2005 DVD, a 1970 audio interview with Pal, Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast that supposedly caused some stir, and a 1940 radio talk between Welles and Wells that links the Martian war to the current world war.
2. The Cat and the Canary (1939) Director: Elliot Nugent - and - 3. The Ghost Breakers (1940) Director: George Marshall
Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard paired up in two comedy-horror hits for Paramount, each based on "old dark house" plays that were filmed before: The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers. Both films were produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr., shot in lovely expressive black and white by Charles Lang, and made largely with the same crew. In both stories, Goddard plays a threatened heiress while Hope plays a wise-cracking radio personality who protects her.
The Cat and the Canary (Kino Lorber) boasts a strong cast including Gale Sondergaard, Douglass Montgomery, John Beal, Elizabeth Patterson, George Zucco and Nydia Westman. The Ghost Breakers (Kino Lorber) has Anthony Quinn, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas and two very important African-American actors, Willie Best and Noble Johnson, as appropriate for a film whose subtext is the haunted legacy of slavery in Cuba. The topic serves as an historical palimpsest raised and never resolved in the heroine's inherited Castillo Maldito on "the Black Island".
Hope and Best make an interesting team, as both characters claim to be scared while doing smart resourceful things. In his commentary, film historian Lee Gambin refers to historian Donald Bogle's assessment of Best, and I concur that he's an attractive, charismatic actor who deserved better parts. This script gives his role plenty of useful business, including lending his gun, showing why his boss can't be guilty of murder, attacking and subduing a zombie, wielding a mace against a white man, and (accidentally) saving everyone's life. In Best, we behold a talented actor working with what he's given, which is sometimes beneath him.
The zombie is played impressively by Johnson, who founded the first black-owned film studio, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company (1916-1921). Like Oscar Micheaux, he'd been inspired by D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1914) into thinking "We've got to tell our own stories." Johnson, best known for King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack), is another actor who forces us to think of the distance between his capacities and his mainstream roles.
4. The Face at the Window (1939) Director: George King
Just as the Bob Hope pictures derive from "old dark house" warhorses of the American stage, The Face at the Window (Kino Lorber) belongs to the British equivalent in Victorian "blood and thunder" melodramas. With gleeful cackling and eye-rolling, star Tod Slaughter cornered the genre in several "quota quickies" with director George King.
In this example, the elements include knives in the back, rumors of werewolfery, a hideous face that signals death, and an intrepid hero (John Warwick) who rescues a damsel (Marjorie Taylor) from foul depredations. These items always promise that evil is glaringly obvious (if not to the victims) and that it shall be vanquished by the young and picturesque. Also that baddies deserve billing above the title as what we've really come to see.
So we know where we are, the opening crawl declares the film "melodrama of the old school--dear to the hearts of all who unashamedly enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy." We're not only warned but encouraged to find it absurd and enjoy it as such. That's aided by a brisk 66 minutes, which hardly leaves time to scoff at each twist before the next comes along.
The oddest element is a bit of mad science in which a doctor who experiments with electricity declares he'll be able to extract the secret of a killer's identity from the freshly dead brain of the victim. "And they dare call me mad!" says he with a straight face.
For a film old and cheaply made, this print is handsomely restored to a clarity it probably hasn't known in decades. Bret Wood performs an English translation of Jean-Claude Michel's extensive historical commentary about Slaughter, whose career is unknown to most Yanks.
5. Dr. Cyclops (1940) Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Paramount's Dr. Cyclops (Kino Lorber) is among the most unusual and strangely under-appreciated works of sci-fi horror of the 1940s. This gorgeous new 4K master offers scrumptious creamy Technicolor that's sometimes very arty. For example, the opening scene is saturated by green with little hints of other jarring colors, like the sickly blue that comes over a man's face as radium rays reveal his skull. This casual murder in the name of mad science is one of the decade's most exquisitely beautiful moments of sadism and shock, and more disturbing murders follow.
The villain is Dr. Alexander Thorkel (Albert Dekker), the world's most brilliant and unorthodox biologist. He's a tall hulk, bald as a cueball, who wears tiny thick glasses to peer from his failing orbs. As Richard Harland Smith's highly informative commentary points out, his look is half Mussolini, half Tojo. The doctor's a moody, erudite, sometimes jolly bastard in love with his startling scientific breakthroughs.
From deep in the Peruvian jungle, he summons the help of a few colleagues to help on his secret experiments. These unwitting fools are Dr. Rupert Bulfinch (Charles Halton), a stuffy older birdlike gentleman; the pretty and peremptory Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan); and the irresponsible, lackadaisical Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley), a tall, dark, handsome drink of water. Also present are a crafty mule-trader (Victor Kilian) and a local servant (Steve Yaconelli) with his horse and dog.
Aside from color and Thorkel's eccentric villainy, the film's greatest draw is the effects and process photography of Farciot Edouart and Wallace Kelley. Edouart and uncredited Gordon Jennings were deservedly Oscar-nominated for their work here. Edouart had done the lovely process work for the Hope comedies, and you'll recall that Jennings would pick up an Oscar for The War of the Worlds.
To what end is their artistry applied? Here comes a possible SPOILER for those who don't know the story, although the trailer gives it away as the selling point. The doc's into shrinkage, and he reduces the other characters to doll people who run about amid oversize props.
This hardy film trope dates back at least to James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and looks forward to Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and many other examples. People born in a certain time and place may recall the Dr. Shrinker segments of The Krofft Supershow (1976) on Saturday mornings, a direct rip-off of Dr. Cyclops. Only recently, Alexander Payne explored the concept in Downsizing (2017) as a possible solution to the world's ills.
The little folks in Dr. Cyclops prove refreshingly resourceful, coming up with all kinds of ideas that you'd like to think would occur to you in the same fix. Although it's never explained how, they even find time to dye their initially white handkerchief-togas.
Even though Dr. Cyclops, as a sensational pulp thriller, never mentions the war that was engulfing the world and indeed seems as far removed as possible from such concerns, reality bleeds through in Thorkel's "dictator" persona and in the fears of misusing the power of radiation, which would soon become an all-consuming topic. And all this fascination is over in 77 unwasted minutes, from the era when they knew how to get in and get out of a pulp story.
6. Arabian Nights (1942) Director: John Rawlins - and - 7. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) Director: Arthur Lubin
Even though Universal was an economical studio, they grasped the point of splurging on Technicolor for adventures and swashbucklers packed with half-clad eye candy, including a host of Orientalist exotica such as Arabian Nights (Kino Lorber) and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Kino Lorber).
Several of these items starred Dominican beauty Maria Montez, "the Queen of Technicolor", mostly paired with heart-throb Jon Hall of mixed Tahitian-Swiss parentage. Indeed, these projects were the most "multicultural" of any 1940s studio, as the stars and extras paraded a dazzling array of white, black and Latino bodies, plus origins from India (Sabu), Turkey (Turhan Bey, "the Turkish Delight"), and even some Arabs here and there for luck.
As wartime escapism, these films are baldly artificial and nonsensical, sometimes earning an over-the-top "camp" reputation. Connoisseurs should clap eyes on Robert Siodmak's Cobra Woman (1944), issued on Kino Blu-ray in January 2020, but these newest releases are "Arabian" pastiches.
These films are also highly erotic, something that rhymes with "exotic". The stories may be chaste but the images are sizzling servings of skin and sado-masochism. You see, foreigners were free of Puritan heritage and middle-American values, and thus could enjoy themselves without knowing better. Audiences lined up to sample this larger-than-life cavorting.
If we wasted time discussing "story" in these things, it's running around and secret identities and backing and forthing about the power of the throne and who wants it and how this ties in with the promise of sex with glamour goddess Montez. What matters in Arabian Nights is the Oscar-nominated photography and art directing and the chance to spot magnetic talents like the woefully underused Jeni Le Gon, a great African-American dancer who plays the handmaiden and rivets our attention as much as Montez.
Also present: Sabu (stealing the show and making the plot go), Turhan Bey (shirtless on the rack), Thomas Gomez, Leif Erikson, Edgar Barrier, comedians Billy Gilbert and Shemp Howard, and a bevy of harem lasses including future horror star Acquanetta. As her confusing Wikipedia page indicates, Acquanetta may have been an African-American who claimed to be Arapaho and was billed as "the Venezuelan Volcano". You figure it out. Sometimes Hollywood kept everyone rigidly in place and sometimes pioneered quicksilver post-racial identities in casting, as per convenience. Not for nothing was it a dream factory.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves expands the Montez-Hall-Sabu triumvirate with Fortunio Bonanova and comic relief from Andy Devine. This popular western sidekick makes a reasonable presence for movies described as "westerns with camels". Philippa Berry discusses these films' history and everyone's careers on the commentary tracks and begins by observing that the so-called Arabian Nights tales boast a mixed Indian, Arabic, Persian and African origin--an early example in world literature of multicultural goulash.
8. Curse of the Undead (1959) Director: Edward Dein
Curse of the Undead (Kino Lorber) is a pioneering western-horror hybrid in atmospheric black and white. Somewhere in the Old West, the legacy of a former Spanish land grant manifests as a cursed aristocrat, now dressed in black and drifting as a hired gun. Drake (Michael Pate, charismatic and riveting) wrestles with upright and uptight Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) for the love of a spunky heiress (Kathleen Crowley, credibly conflicted). Drake, who walks by day, is an unusual vampire who was never vamped himself and whose victims don't revive.
The first coffin scene is one of the most morbid in '50s horror, implying homo-erotic necrophilia. This combines with eyebrow-raising bits of dialogue to reveal the film's origins as a put-on called Eat Me Gently about a gay vampire, as explained in the commentary by film historian Tom Weaver, who interviewed director Edward Dein and his co-writer wife Mildred. Coffin as closet. Universal wasn't going to make that picture. Weaver also reports that Pate and Crowley were happy with their work, as they should have been.
Weaver draws pertinent connections with other movies. The scene where the heroine says she'd pray to the devil reminds him ofThe Devil and Daniel Webster, aka All That Money Can Buy (1941, William Dieterle), and it reminds me of a similar blasphemy in The Soul of a Monster (1944, Will Jason), which is also scripted by Edward Dein.
This good-looking Blu-ray offers no option for seeing the full unmasked frame as in older TV and video prints, and that would have been a nice choice. Still, seeing an optimal 2K mastering makes a big difference to appreciating the fine visual tone of this peculiar cult item.
9. The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) Director: John Gilling
Released in the USA as Mania, The Flesh and the Fiends (Kino Lorber) is a richly grim historical film laced with shudders and witty dialogue. In a variant on his coldly driven Dr. Frankenstein, Peter Cushing plays real-life 19th Century figure Dr. Robert Knox, who became notorious for buying fresh cadavers from body-snatchers Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence).
Alas, those men were none too picky about how to provide the goods. In other words, the corpses were a little too fresh, and the results offer a comment on what happens when money splits the difference between science and morality.
Cushing symbolizes Knox's blinkered nature with a drooping eyelid that happens to be historically accurate. Rose and Pleasence play off each other in chilling comic mode, like a depraved Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. As a brazen harlot, Billie Whitelaw presents the most sympathetic character and the movie's class consciousness.
Also outstanding are the production design and widescreen black and white photography. Some online reviewers have noticed minor fluctuations in the brightness and detail in the source print, and I notice them too but they're bearable. In a way, those moments convey an antique patina as though the movie really were a survival from the late 1820s. The opening J. Arthur Rank gong logo is in Portuguese, which may tell us something about the print.
This film has been long overdue on Blu-ray. Kino's disc offers the "continental" version (with glimpses of nudity) and a much shorter, visually cropped USA re-release with the title The Fiendish Ghouls. Critic Tim Lucas' commentary makes thematic observations amid praise and background info. Fans of excellent British cinema must check this out.
10. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) Director: Val Guest
In the British tradition of apocalyptic science fiction, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Kino Lorber) stakes a claim between the cozy disasters of John Wyndham and the more baroque efforts of J.G. Ballard. As on a certain episode of The Twilight Zone, Earth is heading into the sun.
The film's tense vision is created by nuclear testing, so the paranoia combines Cold War fears with what we now call climate change. Journalists played by Edward Judd and Leo McKern provide our point of view, with Judd's hero finding time to romance a heroine (Janet Munro). Look for young Michael Caine as a traffic cop.
Like The Flesh and the Fiends, here's another early '60s British widescreen wonder long overdue on Blu-ray. Val Guest was a master of British widescreen thrillers that capture a vivid urban world, and this is among his finest hours, bleak and beautifully done in stark matter-of-factness. Harry Waxman's deep-focus photography phases from bustle to hysteria and hopelessness in flat monochrome with tinted opening and closing sequences.
The scenes of chaos and public relief have a documentary edge perhaps intended to recall the London of the Blitz, indicating that the city keeps suffering disaster, and these are often accompanied by spiffy matte paintings. The deserted streets also recall the Boulting Brother's nuclear thriller Seven Days to Noon (1950). Richard Harland Smith provides an informed commentary, and a separate track retains a previous DVD's reminiscence with Guest.
11. Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) Director: Gordon Flemying - and - 12. Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966) (Flemying)
More kid-friendly than the other British films listed here, Dr. Who and the Daleks (Kino Lorber) and Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (Kino Lorber) are colorful widescreen adventures inspired by the BBC series, Doctor Who. Peter Cushing's incarnation of the Doctor, very far from his Frankenstein or Dr. Knox, is a grandfatherly old sweetheart battling the Daleks, a race of snappy electronic dustbins who glide about making expository declamations and behaving rudely.
Dr. Who and the Daleks has the Doctor accompanied by two smart science-y granddaughters and the stumbling, bumbling boyfriend of one of them. They arrive on an eerie planet of gorgeous matte paintings. It's been ruined by nuclear war and the natives are literal golden boys with heavy eyeshadow.
The sequel has the Doctor's niece, granddaughter and a cop arriving in a future London that looks like 1950 if the Blitz had never ended. Both films offer grim scenarios that find happy endings through luck and pluck and after much death. These are definitely films aimed at children, yet young audiences weren't always treated with kid gloves, as it were.
We can be sure that kids who saw these films never forgot them, even though they weren't well-reviewed. Critic Kim Newman offers testimony in friendly personal commentaries shared with two modern Doctor Who writers, Robert Shearman and Mark Gatiss. These 2K Blu-ray scans come with making-of's retained from previous UK discs.
13. Let's Kill Uncle (1966) Director: William Castle - and - 14. Picture Mommy Dead (1966) Director: Bert I. Gordon
Speaking of strong stuff for youngsters: from the depths of 1966 come the homicidal relations of Let's Kill Uncle (Kino Lorber) and Picture Mommy Dead (Kino Lorber), two bodaciously styled pieces of gothic pop art about traumatized juveniles. Both films are presented in bold, simple strokes, brightly colored designs and broadly played characters, and both have head-shaker endings. Nobody today would make films like this for the adolescent crowd, more's the pity, and we're sure that those lucky enough to be warped by these pictures never got over them.
William Castle's Let's Kill Uncle opens on car crash footage lifted, if I'm any judge, from Robert Altman's Nightmare in Chicago (1964), another Universal property. Castle, who liked to cameo in his own films, presents himself as the corpse in the car wreck. Then we focus on a bratty little entitled liar (Pat Cardi) who becomes the "boy who cries wolf" when his war-hero uncle (Nigel Green) calmly announces his intention to kill the kid for his fortune.
Just as calmly, the boy's bickering, snickering frenemy (Mary Badham of Robert Mulligan's 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird) suggests the solution: "Let's kill uncle first." While responsible adults (Robert Pickering, Linda Lawson) stand around uselessly, the juveniles throw themselves through setpieces with sharks and tarantulas and arson on the remote island setting.
In a bonus interview, Cardi discusses differences between the film and Rohan O'Grady's novel and also the script's original ending, which he thinks the film should have kept. It does sound awesome, while the ending we have is a bit on the "family friendly" cop-out side and yet, when you think about it, not completely. In their commentary, historians Kat Ellinger and Mike McPadden discuss the film's place in Castle's output, where it fits very snugly.
More fodder for therapy can be found in Bert I. Gordon's gorgeously designed Picture Mommy Dead, starring his daughter, Susan Gordon, as the moppet who suffers amnesia after witnessing her mother's death by fire in the disturbing opening sequence. Literally everyone around her is unpleasant and duplicitous: daddy (Don Ameche), the late mommy (Zsa Zsa Gabor), the new wife (Martha Hyer), the facially scarred cousin (Maxwell Reed) and the contemptuous lawyer (Wendell Corey). Come to think of it, Let's Kill Uncle also has a scarred character.
Robert Sherman's script and dialogue are amazingly cynical, and the ending of this post- Psycho extravaganza is quite a piece of work. Nathaniel Thompson and Howard S. Berger spend their commentary raving about the picture. Like Let's Kill Uncle, the film aims at nasty-but-fun cold-hearted entertainment--for young viewers! The uncle in that film even declares that he hopes the kids have learned something about the world, and well they might have.
15. They Came From Beyond Space (1967) Director: Freddie Francis
After meteorites crash in a Cornwall field, people's minds get taken over by intelligent light waves and a hive of activity begins. At the halfway point, a "crimson plague" breaks out and everyone gets shut in their homes! Such is the world of They Came From Beyond Space (Kino Lorber).
The requisite Quatermass-like American scientist (Robert Hutton) wastes a lot of time trying to get past an electric fence and being shot at multiple times before he finally invents the magic gizmos he needs in a buddy's kitchen and in the blink of an eye. Then it's off to see the Wizard, or rather the Master of the Moon (Michael Gough), in the last five minutes. While taking over Earth, the aliens haven't neglected the protocol of color-coded satin robes like fabulous pajamas.
Freddie Francis, best known as an Oscar-winning cinematographer, directed many horror films that at least look picturesque and sometimes much better than that. This nice-looking example offers pleasant rural locations and Dr. Who-type alien set designs. The photographer is Norman Warwick, whose finest hours would be the spectacular 1971 trifecta of The Last Valley (directed by James Clavell), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest) and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (Roy Ward Baker). Talk about a very good year. They Came From Beyond Space doesn't hit that delirium but it's far from shabby.
Jennifer Jayne makes an intriguing scientist-heroine who spends most of the movie brainwashed into ruthlessness, a hazard of science in general and perhaps especially for women, since movies deliver the message that using their brains too much can make them lose feminine charm. (The woman scientist in Dr. Cyclops faces the same pitfall until the hunk exclaims, "I'm beginning to like that scientific mind!") Also intriguing is Pakistani actor Zia Moyheddin as a hero, though he shows up only five minutes before Gough.
Like the Doctor Who movies, this British item is an Amicus production scripted by Milton Subotsky, here adapting Joseph Millard's 1941 pulp novel The Gods Hate Kansas. As David Del Valle points out in his commentary with David DeCoteau, the story predates most of the movies and books that this film resembles, although he locates the primary origin in H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space (1927).
This sparkling new 4K master will do something to rescue a film whose reputation is much worse than necessary. DeCoteau, a prolific director of direct-to-video exploitation, states that the film's only problem is the script, which seems rather odd for him to say. I fault only the editing of a story whose repetitions and protractions make it run a reel longer than it should. Of course, that seems true of most movies, but if this picture were tighter, more people would surely like it.
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