It can be difficult to get into “classic” horror movies. Often the wide spectrum of what is “horror” is misleading, as older horror movies don’t pack the same punches that they had in the teens, the twenties, and the thirties. Tastes have changed, censorship laws have changed, and public acceptance has changed. Imagine an audience today demanding a film be banned because the set design was too angular and strange, or because there were Siamese twins in the cast.
Some things just haven’t aged that well—or have they? It’s important to go into these films with the right mindset. Classic horror—sometimes referred to as “Universal horror” due to the fact that many of those early, influential horror films came from Universal Studios—was marketed to a different era, a different audience. And they were the first horror movies—heck, movies themselves were still fairly new. So directors were still learning about their medium as well as learning how to scare audiences. It’s important to remember that these films were starting something new, and horror or even suspense films that have come later have been influenced by them in some way or another.
That said, not every example of classic horror is a gem. Sometimes the influence of an older film comes in the form of “what we want to avoid”—fifties horror movies full of screaming, but otherwise prim, women facing poor effects, whose troubles are explained away at the end by pseudo-psychiatry. So we’ve put together a list of double features to help you avoid that sort of mess, and try out—and maybe get a taste for—some true classic horror on your own and with your friends.
Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari
Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) horrified contemporary audiences for many reasons. The titular Doctor Caligari is in possession of a somnambulist named Cesare. Caligari has Cesare murder at night, but when he is ordered to murder a local woman, he is moved by her beauty and instead abducts her. Then the attention is turned to Caligari himself. What the film is remembered for now, and what was one of the big shockers for contemporary audiences, was the setting. It is often considered to be the epitome of German expressionism, so visually, everything is off-kilter and out of perspective. No object truly exists in relation to any other object, and it’s meant to represent the madman’s perspective of the world around him. The story goes that just this aspect was overwhelming for audiences unfamiliar with the form, not to mention the somnambulistic murders.
Nosferatu (1922) was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with just enough details changed to avoid immediate legal action. Although a court order eventually called for all prints to be destroyed, it was happily ignored by a few. The story remains basically the same as Dracula; a vampire travels to England and stalks the attractive local women. Count Orlock’s downfall comes from his excitement over drinking blood from a young, attractive woman, instead of a stake to the heart. Most striking is Orlock’s unpleasant visage—he’s not suave, he’s not cool, he’s nasty. A rumor among audiences at the time was that Max Schreck, the actor who played Orlock, really was a vampire.
Why put these on the bill together? They’re both early silent German films. German cinema and folklore were highly influential on the early horror films, and these are the heavyweights. Caligari has even transcended horror history and is often cited as the picture of German expressionism altogether and the first “cult” film. Nosferatu is still lauded as an early, influential horror film, not only having been remade, but remaining in more recent pop culture with Spongebob Squarepants, of all things. These two films are also the easiest pre-Universal/non-Universal horror films to get a hold of.
Both the movies run around an hour and a half, and admittedly silent films can be a little taxing for audiences no longer used to the style. It’s not everybody’s thing. It might be worth taking a ten-minute break between the two to stretch your legs.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) starred Lon Chaney, a name you’ll see time and time again in classic horror, and an actor known for his commitment to his roles. For Hunchback, for example, he wore a real hump which may have caused him severe back problems, and insisted on really being whipped in order to convey an accurate response. Hunchback follows Victor Hugo’s book much more closely than the Disney film, and of course there aren’t the cuter musical numbers and the stony comic relief. The film isn’t necessarily a horror movie, but it gets lumped in with horror movies for its horror elements, like the infamous whipping scene, and, of course, Lon Chaney’s visage. It’s a good introduction to Chaney—this movie is often credited as being the one that gave him full star status, though he was known prior to this. This film is alternately considered a horror film and a romance.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) has nothing to do with Broadway romances. The Phantom (Lon Chaney) is obsessed with Christine, but there’s really no tragedy or romance inherit. The Phantom skulks around, threatens Christine, and finally abducts, but offers her some freedom, should she never look under his mask. Of course, she looks under his mask. The reveal is still shocking, and again, a testament to Chaney’s dedication to his roles. There’s also about ten minutes of color in the middle of the black and white (tinted) film which is used to great effect; the Phantom is perfectly grotesque in color, both unmasked and incognito as the Red Death. You’ll be doing yourself a favor if you don’t spoil the Phantom’s face for yourself.
Why put these on the bill together? Again, Lon Chaney is a name you’ll see time and time again when discussing early American horror films, and his son took on the name and the mantle after his father’s untimely death. Chaney was an incredibly expressive but not over the top or a cheesy actor even under his extreme makeup, as both his parents were deaf-mute. His silent acting had been honed in the most natural way possible. Both of these films are also genuinely enjoyable films outside of the fact that there’s film history to appreciate, and you don’t really have to know much about film history (beyond being aware of, say, silent films and black-and-white films) to enjoy them.
Like the first double billing in this article, both of these movies are (mostly) silent movies. Again, they’re not everybody’s thing, but these two are probably easier to get into if you’re not used to silent films.
Dracula and Drácula (Spanish language version)
Dracula (1931) is the vampire movie you know, even if you’ve never seen it. Every gesture and action we associate with the classic vampire—the cape, the accent, the bat, the double-talk—that’s Bela Lugosi. Well, much of it could be attributed to Bram Stoker, as he wrote the original book, but Lugosi brought it to life, and that accent is all his, anyways (he was Hungarian). It’s the tale we all know so well: a vampire comes to England (with only three coffins; which vampire-wife does he ditch at home?), goes for Mina, and gets defeated by a ragtag group of the educated and romantically entwined. The shoot suffered a lot of problems, as it was shot chronologically. Changes to the script meant characters and side plots dropped off suddenly. Still, the film can hold its own, and Lugosi established the suave and appealing, but quietly dangerous vampire.
Drácula (1931) is the same tale, shot on the same set as the Lugosi Dracula, for Spanish audiences. Because they would shoot after the English-language scenes, they could watch the English footage and see what shots or effects could be improved upon. Carlos Villarias doesn’t have the same air as Lugosi (he looks a little like Nicholas Cage), but the film succeeds in many other ways, and at times outshines the English-language production. Of course, this film is a talkie, so make sure the edition of this film that you watch has subtitles. (If you’re familiar enough with the original and have had at least some grade school Spanish, you might be alright.)
Why put these on the bill together? This one probably doesn’t need an explanation. The English language film is still a cultural figurehead 86 years later, and it has the charisma. But the Spanish language version has more of the art.
Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein
Frankenstein (1931) wasn’t the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book for film (the very first came out in 1910), but this is the one that made the big splash. Boris Karloff starred as Frankenstein’s monster (a role Bela Lugosi turned down, offended at the very suggestion that he might play a grumbling, shambling monster). The mad scientist Henry Frankenstein becomes obsessed with revitalizing dead flesh and succeeds. The monster breaks out into an unfamiliar world, taking revenge on those who tormented him while trying and failing to understand the more benign aspects of the same world. Try to find an uncut edition of the film: censoring of a line where Frankenstein compares himself to God and one where the monster bonds with a young girl make the movie seem even more controversial than if the censors had left well enough alone.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) has Karloff returning as the monster, interested in a mate. Frankenstein is leery of the whole thing, but a fellow scientist who has created miniature human life successfully strong arms him into it. If you’ve seen Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, this movie will be surprisingly familiar. The monster befriends a blind hermit (which also echoes the original novel), and there’s an unexpected comedic element that must have served as Brooks’ jumping off point. This film also really established who we think of when we think Frankenstein’s monster. There was already the look, but the personality starts coming through, and of course there’s the monster’s grunt-speak. His shambling, arms-out walk wouldn’t be established until The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), when the monster goes blind.
Why put these on the bill together? Well, it is the first and second film in a series, and the best two of the series. Karloff stuck around for one more Frankenstein film, and then the role sort of got kicked around to whoever needed some work. Frankenstein is strong enough to stand on its own and is enjoyable, but almost acts as a prequel to The Bride of Frankenstein that establishes the fleshed-out version of the monster (pun intended) almost all audiences still recognize today.
The Black Cat and Freaks
The Black Cat (1934) stars both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and has absolutely no relation to the Edgar Allan Poe story it was billed as. Rather, Lugosi meets up with a honeymooning couple on the way to see Karloff’s character, Hjalmar, who he describes as his friend. The three end up at Hjalmar’s together and things go south from there, as Lugosi’s character lied about their camaraderie and is intent on finally getting his revenge for devastating past events. The stereotype going in is that Lugosi—the Dracula—will be the villain, but as he runs through the laundry list of Karloff’s crimes you start thinking he’s sympathetic, and you feel a little guilty for being suspicious of his friendliness. Then there’s a strangely beautiful scene when Lugosi is about to have his revenge and you realize you were being played like a fiddle all along. It’s a treat to see the two superstars play off each other when they were at the height of their careers.
Freaks (1932) is a Tod Browning-directed horror film about the lives of a circus crew, specifically the members of the “freak show” feature. Browning had run away from home and joined the circus as a teenager, so he had real experience to draw on, and actually knew many of the circus performers personally. Although contemporary audiences responded to the titular members of the cast viscerally, Browning was trying to show that the outward appearances of the cast belied their personalities. The beautiful Cleopatra (Leila Hyams) learns that sideshow performer Hans (Harry Earles) has a huge inheritance. She seduces and marries him, then begins planning his demise. Cleopatra learns that turning against a member of the close-knit sideshow performers wasn’t the best plan, though it’s unclear if she can still contemplate this misstep at the end of the film. Her makeup effects will stay with you long after the film has ended.
Why put these on the bill together? Freaks is a cult classic, and The Black Cat is a surprisingly enjoyable movie, even though it doesn’t seem to be that well-known (Bela Lugosi started taking any role he could get at some point, so his name isn’t always synonymous with quality acting or quality film, which may have contributed to this). Both films’ fans are loyal, but there should be more of them. American Horror Story played homage to Freaks in its fourth season, especially in its opening credits. The Black Cat makes it onto fan lists, horror film documentaries and in books, but it doesn’t have the same general presence as either of the leads’ biggest horror roles. The Black Cat makes a better first billing because it has a somewhat conventional-for-the-time horror movie ending. Freaks’ ending is much, much more striking.
Obviously there are many more “classic” horror films out there, but these double-billings cover the basics of the twenties-mid-thirties that really built the genre. From here you should be ready to take anything from these two decades on, and branch out to find other classic favorites.