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13 Best Classic Horror Movies of All Time
These days, the horror genre, which has been experiencing a remarkable renaissance as of late via the work of auteurs like Jordan Peele and M. Night Shyamalan, is full of super realistic CGI and blood and guts splattered in every color of the rainbow on screen. But despite the revival contemporary horror films, with their gimmickry and gore, are often no match for the classics. There’s something startlingly horrific about black and white terrors from some of history’s most inventive and cunning filmmakers. So if you’re in the mood to have the living hell scared out of you, these classic films—from psycho killers to supernatural hauntings and the everlasting terror of the undead—are just as heart-stopping as anything that would hit streamers today.
Roman Polanski’s 1968 film is a dark, demon-filled fixture of the horror canon. It follows a couple who, upon moving into a haunted Manhattan apartment building, conceive and give birth to the spawn of Satan.
Birds are terrifying even when they aren’t the villains in a horror film, so you can imagine how scary this 1963 classic is from Alfred Hitchcock. It follows Melanie Daniels, a socialite, as she accompanies a lawyer to a town where the birds feast on human flesh.
Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s novel (yep, you got that right) is a cult favorite for fans of the genre. The psychological horror follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) as he descends into homicidal madness at the Overlook Hotel.
For his debut feature, David Lynch dove deep into a surrealist style that would soon become his calling card. Jack Nance plays a man living in a desolate industrial wasteland who is just like any other guy: he has a thing for his attractive neighbor but finds out her deformed baby is somehow his child. To make matters worse, he’s also haunted by a woman living in his radiator, and must maintain a semblance of sanity while living in a malevolent nightmare world.
Based on Henry James’s classic novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as an impressionable young governess who takes a position raising two young children in the English countryside. As she learns to handle the troublemaking kids’ quirkiness, she also begins to suspect they are under the control of the former governess and her lover, who both died before her arrival.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
New horror movies are always trying to push the line of acceptability, often to off-putting results. The oldest examples of the genre, however, are actually some of the most mesmerizing, particularly this 1920 German expressionist gem about a murderous hypnotist, which essentially invented the serial-killer movie.
Director Tod Browning dared to imagine a revenge fantasy from the perspective of a group of circus “freaks”—and his contemporary critics hated him for it, as the film got horrible reviews upon its release (and was censored heavily from its original version). Years later, however, it has gained critical appreciation for its unsettling and unflinching plot.
Carnival of Souls
After surviving a car accident, a disoriented woman wanders into an abandoned carnival pavilion, drawn to it by its eerie music. And it’s there that she discovers a ghastly group of beings, seemingly lost and bewildered, led by a pale faced man who haunts the heroine’s waking dreams.
The Night of the Hunter
Robert Mitchum plays a corrupt preacher who has “HATE” and “LOVE” tattooed on his hands (never a good sign). He charms his way into marrying a woman in order to steal a hidden stash of money, and her children have to stop him in this tense and taut thriller.
Eyes Without a Face
In the very literally titled French art-horror classic, a famous and unhinged surgeon kidnaps beautiful women and tries to transplant their faces onto his daughter who is, yes, missing a face. Inspiring everything from Face/Off to the Billy Idol song, its visuals remain some of the most disturbing ever committed to film.
Based on Shirley Jackson’s brilliant novel The Haunting of Hill House, this film finds a small group of guests participating in a paranormal study of a supposedly haunted mansion. There are horrifying bumps in the night, but it may not just be ghosts who are the cause of the guests’ frights—but the spirit of the house itself.
All of director Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are worth watching, and nearly all of them fit squarely into the thriller category. While they’re generally light on horrific elements, he took a hard turn with Psycho, which scared the living hell out of everyone who watched it in 1960. Today, though, it’s relatively low-key. The most terrifying part is Anthony Perkins’s superb, understated performance as a troubled man with serious mommy issues.
Night of the Living Dead
George Romero essentially created the modern zombie film as we know it with this iconic horror film. Shot on a shoe-string budget (making it one of the greatest indie films ever made), the slow-moving undead who roam around suburban Pittsburgh searching for fresh human meat remain some of the most terrifying monsters in cinema history. Come for the terror, stay for the surprising social commentary that brilliantly taps into American racial and cultural tensions.
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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