Whether you like monsters or ghosts or even aliens from another planet, there’s nothing quite like watching old scary movies. Sure, some of these classic films seem rather tame or even laughable by today’s standards, but they still manage to pack a terrifying punch. Here are just some of the best horror movies from classic Hollywood and beyond.
Widely considered better than the original Frankenstein from 1931, James Whale’s classic gothic horror has been hailed as his masterpiece. The action picks up right where its predecessor left off, with Boris Karloff’s monster surviving the fire that ended the previous film and going on another rampage. But the monster later softens when Dr. Frankenstein’s former mentor creates a new monster, this time a woman with whom he tries to connect. Once again, rejection sends him on a furious rampage that ends in the destruction of the laboratory. More tongue-in-cheek than scary, The Bride of Frankenstein is full of dark atmosphere, offbeat humor and excellent performances.
In the early 1950s, a new hybrid genre began to emerge, where science fiction was combined with classic horror to create a frightening new blend. Many early sci-fi horror movies were of the grade-B variety – meaning they were cheap and often cheesy – but in 1956, Don Siegel made an all-time classic with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The story focused on a small California town that serves as host to an extraterrestrial invasion, where the aliens take over the town by inhabiting the citizens, destroying their personalities and emotions while trying to propagate their species. Body Snatchers relies not on shocking or terrorizing the viewer with monsters or gore, and instead builds a slow, but steady paranoia that has often been seen as a reflection of the hysteria of the McCarthy era.
With Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violins, rapid editing and lots of chocolate syrup, Alfred Hitchcock engineered one of the most famous and frightening scenes in movie history when psychotic momma’s boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) slashes a remorseful embezzler (Janet Leigh) in the shower of the Bates Motel. Though the infamous shower scene has been parodied to death over the years, causing it to lose some of its spine-chilling fright, Psycho nonetheless was considered to be the first true slasher movie. Sure, it's not as scary in 2011 as it was in 1960, but it's still one of the best.
Directed by Brian De Palma from a novel by Stephen King, Carrie was guaranteed to be frightening and bloody from the start. Sissy Spacek starred as Carrie White, a outcast teenager who discovers she has telekinetic powers when provoked to anger. Because she is the butt of cruel jokes from her classmates, it doesn’t take long for her to use her new found psychic abilities on her tormentors and her religiously fanatical mother (Piper Laurie). An instant classic thanks in part to the iconic prom scene where Carrie’s final indignity comes when she is drenched in pig’s blood, Carrie was a major box office hit that spawned a rather forgettable sequel and an inferior, but enjoyable television remake.
This early John Carpenter effort set forth the tone for other slasher flicks that followed while spawning a number of sequels and remakes of ever-diminishing quality. Most importantly, however, Carpenter introduced moviegoers to knife-wielding maniac Michael Myers, whose grungy overalls and ghoulish mask make for a frightening Halloween costume. Carpenter masterfully built terror and suspense by allowing the audience to see the violence from the killer’s point-of-view, while also keeping gore to a minimum in favor of startling the audience with Myers suddenly entering the frame – a lesson he learned from Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Aside from Jack Nicholson hamming it up as the murder-minded Jack Torrance, The Shining rose above initial bad reviews to be considered a classic horror movie that borders on high art. Director Stanley Kubrick downplayed the supernatural elements of Stephen King’s source material – the author famously was quoted as “hating” the movie – and instead placed emphasis on the psychological terror of a man who descends into madness while caretaking a remote hotel with his family. From the rivers of blood flowing through the Overbrook Hotel to the haunting images of two girls murdered by a previous caretaker to an axe-wielding Nicholson taking out a bathroom door, The Shining is full of terrorizing scenes bound to send a jolt into even the most hardened horror veteran.
Directed by Toby Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist is a movie so frightening that some believe that a real-life curse claimed the lives of four cast members during the making of the trilogy between 1982-88, including child actor Heather O’Rourke, who died following a hospital misdiagnosis at 12 years old. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams play the heads of a family whose house – which unbeknownst to them is built on an ancient Native American burial ground – becomes haunted by ghosts, demons and other evil spirits. Glasses mysteriously break, utensils bend and little Carrie Anne gets sucked through a portal to the netherworld hidden in the closet. Remember, if your television suddenly turns to static and you see an apparition escape, run, don't stay.