If you’re a fan of classic black and white horror film, then you’ve probably heard the common refrain; “I’d like to check out some black and white horror, but I just can’t seem to get into old movies.” And if you’re one of those people who finds a pre-1970 release date difficult to get past, don’t despair! You’re certainly not alone.
Unfortunately, popular culture perpetuates the myth that old horror films are hokey and far from scary. This leaves the onus on audiences to dive into classic horror to find the hidden gems, and it’s an overwhelming task. No shade to the excellent Universal Monster Movies, but they are far more atmospheric than scary and feel very of their time.
“Many folks who think they don’t like old horror simply haven’t been watching the right films.”
Many folks who think they don’t like old horror simply haven’t been watching the right films. But the classic film era birthed plenty of innovative, frightening, and fresh films that influenced much of modern horror. Their scares are still effective, their ideas are complex, and they are the perfect entry points for horror fans who think they don’t like classic horror. Here are some of our favorites.
10. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Check it out if: You’re into trippy horror that plays on themes of madness and perception.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is arguably the first horror film of all time. So what makes this 1920 relic of German Expression still work for audiences today? It’s the complete embrace of its strangeness and the way the film so brilliantly uses sets, costumes, makeup, and lighting to conjure horror. The story presents us with a mad hypnotist (Wernerr Krauss) who compels a sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) to commit murder. By reveling in abstract visuals and a deliberately odd performance style, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari leaps across the decades with a timeless impact. Add a brilliant twist that puts all of the preceding visuals into perspective, and you have a perfect classic horror for fans of David Lynch, The Babadook, and the innumerable surreal horrors that owe this film a debt of inspiration.
9. Freaks (1932)
Check it out if: You want to see the original take on “carnival horror”
Freaks is a film that so shocked and repulsed the audiences of its time, it received run-outs — not walk-outs, run-outs — as well as scathing reviews and merciless cuts. It was rediscovered as a counterculture midnight shocker in the 1960s and is now regarded as a well-crafted and effective film that 30s-era audiences simply weren’t ready for. Freaks is famous for its cast of real individuals who worked as “circus freaks. They were exhibited in carnivals of the 30s as entertainment because of their physical deformities and disabilities. What contemporary society sees as a deeply exploitive practice was widely accepted in the 30s, and critics of the time were more offended that the film dared present these performers as human beings who could love. In fact, Freaks was ahead of its time for depicting its characters as fully realized individuals with hopes and dreams, while the able-bodied people who look down on them are the true monsters. The brutal reality depicted, as well as the grisly fate of the film’s villains, keeps Freaks scary by modern standards. And it’s a great example of how director Tod Browning could push the horror envelope beyond his more conventional, and well-known, work in Dracula (1932).
8. Cat People (1942)
Check it out if: You love ambiguous, less-is-more horror.
Horror super-producer Val Lewton was brought on by RKO to help the studio compete with the moneymaking power of Universal Horror. He did just that, while also revolutionizing horror as we know it along the way. His real-world-based horror stood apart from Universal’s fantastical offerings and created a new era of relatable horror scenarios. Lewton took the style of film noir and applied it to horror, creating shadowy cinematography that hid its monsters just out of sight. Cat People, his first horror film for RKO, revolutionized the no-show monster technique that would become so famous in Jaws (1977). Cat People is the story of a young woman who believes she’s cursed to transform into a monstrous feline should she become too passionate. As she begins to lose her grip on reality, the audience is left to wonder if she’s delusional, or if she truly can transform. Lewton’s assertion that what the audience can’t see will always be scarier than what they can holds true, and it’s why Cat People holds up today. From the evocative swimming pool scene to the terrifying sequence that culminates in the very first false jump scare in horror — Cat People is a juggernaut of horror innovation.
7. Dead of Night (1945)
Check it out: If you love a good Horror Anthology like Trick r. Treat (2007) or V/H/S (2012).
Anthology horror, a favorite subgenre of many a modern horror fan, actually saw its first iteration in 1945’s Dead of Night. The film follows a man ((Mervyn Johns), who visits the country to recover from nightmares, and the segments are all various stories told to him by guests at the estate he visits. Dead of Night has all the trappings of contemporary anthology horror, including a framing story and a variety of directors for each segment. The stories themselves are mostly tales of hauntings, and many are still surprisingly scary. The final tale, about a Ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) who begins to suspect his dummy is alive, is the first example of the evil dummy trope. Later episodes of The Twilight Zone, films like Dead Silence (2007), and even Goosebumps all owe a debt to Dead of Night. The film also features a time-bending final twist that was so mind-blowing, it influenced British astronomer Fred Hoyle’s steady-state theory of the universe! If that doesn’t scream “must-watch,” I don’t know what does!
6. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
Check it out if: You want to experience a more authentic take on Zombie horror.
Val Lewton makes his second appearance on this list with his haunting reimagining of Jane Eyre set in the Caribbean. I Walked with a Zombie is a pre-Romero zombie film that focuses on the actual Haitian folklore that originated the term. It’s not the only film that used the original zombie concept over the better known Romero “ghouls.” But it is the only one that did so with relative accuracy and sensitivity. The film follows a nurse (Frances Dee) who has relocated to the Caribbean to care for a plantation owner’s catatonic wife. The more she learns about the situation, the more she suspects the ill woman might be a victim of Voodoo magic. The film is creepy, subdued, and mournful, with surprising respect for Haitian culture and beliefs for the time. And while the film has some missteps that still point to a white, 40s-era director at its helm, a condemnation of the legacy of slavery and colonialism is a central theme. The sequence where our protagonist guides her charge through the sugar cane to a moonlit voodoo ceremony is a masterpiece of atmosphere and tension. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur are at the height of their cinematic power in this film.
5. The Haunting (1963)
Check it out if: You loved Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House and want to experience a chilling interpretation of the story that inspired it.
Speaking of horror that genuinely scared yours truly, The Haunting is a classic ghost story on film that freaked me out so much after my first viewing, I didn’t want to leave my couch to get my laptop from across the room! Why? Robert Wise brought to life one of the greatest horror monsters of all time, an old manor by the name of Hill House. The film depicts its setting so effectively, it makes the audience feel like they are also stuck within its walls, participating in an ill-advised paranormal investigation. Brilliant cinematography tricks (shooting the eponymous house with infrared film to give it the illusion of being alive, sets with ceilings to increase claustrophobia, SO. MANY. STATUES) makes every frame feel haunted without a single ghost appearing on the screen. Turns out that in the right hands, nothing can be scarier than some banging sounds and a funny feeling of being watched.
4. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Check it out if: You want to be blown away by a simple supernatural tale with a twist.
Carnival of Souls is a great example of how a simple idea and a shoestring budget can still result in one of the best horror films ever made. The 1962 independent film from Herk Harvey is a hallucinatory trip that maintains its power to this day. As far as scares go, this film has some that will genuinely make many modern horror fans jump and leave the rest deeply unnerved. The story of a young organist (Candace Hilligoss) who finds herself haunted by a pale-faced man and inexplicably drawn to an abandoned carnival, is disarmingly simple. But it draws the viewer right into our heroine’s distorted perspective and ends with a great twist that leaves just enough mystery. Carnival of Souls drew from classic black and white film that came before (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and influenced what was yet to come (Night of the Living Dead), making this cult classic the perfect addition to this list.
3. The Innocents (1961)
Check it out if: You love ghost stories with creepy kids and a hint of madness
If you love The Shining or any similarly uncanny and ambiguous ghost story, The Innocents is your perfect gateway to classic horror. It’s still the highest regarded adaptation of The Turn of the Screw to date. The 1898 Henry James novella is experiencing something of a revival, with modern reimaginings in theaters (The Turning) and coming to streaming (The Haunting of Bly Manor). It will be difficult to top the terror of the ‘61 film, even to a modern eye. The Innocents is powerfully unnerving and even terrifying. Director Jack Clayton helmed a very faithful adaptation of the book, and his use of music, cinematography and production design effectively puts you on edge during every frame. The child actors are phenomenal, Deborah Kerr is convincingly paranoid, and the uncanny, staring ghosts evoke the most disturbing apparitions of The Shining. Fear is relative, but I watch a lot of modern horror films, and The Innocents is one of the few movies that makes me hide under the covers anytime it comes to mind.
2. Les Diaboliques (1955)
Check it out if: You crave a great psychological horror film that’s lesser-known, and far less spoiled!
Les Diaboliques is the thriller that Hitchcock wished he could have made. Seriously! The master of suspense himself wanted the rights to the novel on which the psychological horror was based, but French director Henri-Georges Clouzot beat him to it. Clouzet’s film turned out to be a wonderfully suspenseful horror film with sequences that influenced both Psycho and The Shining, and it features some timelessly effective scares. It also boasts a hell of a twist, so see it before you listen to Nightmare on Film Street’s awesome episode pairing Les Diaboliques with our final pick.
1. Psycho (1960)
Check it out if: You haven’t yet, you lucky duck!
Which brings us to … our top pick for classic horror that feels fresh. It’s the thriller that still causes folks to peer nervously out from behind their shower curtains when its central murder comes to mind. It’s got a killer twist and revolutionized the protagonist bait and switch utilized by so many horror films today. And it’s just one of the greatest films from the unquestioned master of suspense, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock! If you haven’t seen it, consider yourself both rare and lucky. Even to this day, its suspenseful, intense, shocking, and scary. As a masterpiece of terror, it’s the ideal antidote to an aversion to “classic” horror.
There you have it! Ten films to try out if you find yourself struggling to get into the oldies. I hope these picks open you up to the world of black and white horror. There are so many that hold up to the cinema of today. If you find you enjoy one or more of these films, keep exploring classic horror. Maybe you’ll discover your own hidden gems and new favorites. Do you have recommendations for a surprisingly modern old horror film? Let us know on our Twitter, reddit, Instagram, or on The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!