There’s a certain tendency with younger audiences, one which I myself can be guilty of as well from time to time, to naturally skew towards newer films rather than those that came out before they were born. If you give them a choice between a modern release and something from decades ago, especially if it’s in black-and-white, they will almost certainly choose the contemporary option.
I’ve never quite been able to determine exactly why this is, even when I’m the one experiencing this particular recency bias. Maybe it’s the visual quality? Maybe it’s the notion that, with certain older films, they exist so strongly in the zeitgeist and shared cultural memory that you don’t actually have to watch them to know about them. In the same way that virtually anyone on this planet can recognize Godzilla or Darth Vader without ever having seen one of their respective films, I feel like a lot of classic films are regarded in the same way.
This is particularly true, I find, with horror films. A modern audience doesn’t want to watch Dracula or The Phantom of the Opera because they feel that the plots and characters of these films are so ingrained in pop culture that they know them inside and out without ever having actually seen a single frame of the films. And honestly, it’s a fair argument to make. Frankenstein is a fantastic film, one that everyone should watch at some point, but even if you’ve never personally seen it, you know the story beats by heart simply because of how many times it’s been parodied and pain homage to in other media.
And of course, when discussing horror, there’s the idea that older films (especially films in black-and-white) simply aren’t scary. That the standards of fright that older audiences were held to were too soft compared to what modern audiences can handle. Again, there’s an element of truth to this. Show a teenager from the 1950s Insidious and they’d probably soil themselves.
But I think there’s a certain magic to a lot of these older films that’s lost on a person until they actually give it a chance. I didn’t watch Frankenstein, for instance, until I was well into my 20s, and was absolutely kicking myself for not having seen it sooner. It’s a phenomenal film, one that held my attention far better than most contemporary films have managed. There’s a reason that these films have stood the test of time and are still being talked about in pop culture: Because they’re good. And some of them can still produce some solid scares, too, even after all these years.
So if like me, you’ve found yourself reluctant to dive into the frankly daunting backlog of classic horror films that exist in the cinema lexicon, here’s some very accessible, very effective older films to help you dip your toes into the deep end:
The grandaddy of all slasher films, Alfred Hitchcock’s quintessential thriller really isn’t one in and of itself. Rather, it sets the stage for the genre to bloom later on in the 70s with pioneers like Black Christmas and Halloween by establishing the early versions of many of the tropes that would come to define the subgenre. But even outside historical significance, Psycho is an excellent film. I was shocked, when I finally saw it as a teenager, at just how effectively tense and suspenseful it manages to be, even knowing the broad strokes ahead of time. Hitchcock’s direction is perhaps tighter here than it ever was, and the performances of both Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles are likely to last until the literal heat death of the universe. Norman Bates absolutely deserves to go down as one of the most fascinating, threatening horror villains of all time, and is the template for everyone from Hannibal Lector to Jason Voorhees. It’s impossible to overstate just how impactful this movie is, and most of that is due solely to just how damned good it is.
Freaks is a film that’s fairly difficult to classify. To call it a horror movie seems cruel and unfair, if not borderline exploitative, but that was also entirely the point. Released originally in 1934, and starring a cast of real-life carnival performers and persons with disabilities, the film is frankly more of a crime drama, only with a particularly macabre set dressing. It takes place in a circus, where a tight-knit group of sideshow “freaks” who find their community infiltrated by a gold-digging harlot who seduces and betrays one of their own. The film is a revenge thriller, following the titular freaks as they strike back against the woman who wronged one of their own. It’s one of the most controversial films ever made, not for its subject matter so much as for its cast, who were forced to segregate themselves from the rest of the cast and crew for the duration of the crew, and who were treated nearly as poorly by audiences as their on-screen counterparts. It’s a wonderful film that begins a long journey in Hollywood that ultimately ends up passing through grindhouse and exploitation cinema, leading all the way to modern films like A Quite Place that cast disabled actors in a much more respectful and fulfilling manner. Like Psycho, Freaks is worth a watch just as much for its legacy as its own remarkable merits. Gooble-Gobble.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon
Honestly, I could have put any of Universal’s classic monster movies on this list, from The Wolfman to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I must admit a particular soft spot for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Part of this has to do with the film’s titular villain, the amazingly-designed Gill-man. Not only does he look incredible, from the way he moves to the way that performer Ben Chapman is able to convey emotion through the pounds of rubber prosthetics he was wearing the entire time, he also feels like the most sympathetic in Universal’s impressive library of relatable, tragic monsters. But The Creature from the Black Lagoon also has an amazingly timeless quality to it, with its themes of colonialization and ecological meddling feeling perhaps more relevant now than ever. It’s a shame that we haven’t gotten a modern update to this film like we have with most of the other Universal icons (unless you count The Shape of Water), but I’m perfectly happy with just the pitch-perfect original to go on. Technically a horror movie, you’ll find more of a gothic tragedy here than your run-of-the-mill monster movie. But that’s a definite strength, not a weakness.
Night of the Living Dead
The film responsible for kicking of the zombie craze as we know it today, masterminded by the king himself, George A. Romero, The Night of the Living Dead is a criminally under-watched film by most modern audiences. More people I’ve met have seen Zombieland than the classic that started it all (which isn’t a knock on Zombieland by the way, I love that movie too). And yet, despite being released in 1968, it in many ways surpasses everything else that succeeded it, as it’s a far deeper well of thematic content than most of the zombie films we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. Most of us are more familiar with the spectacle of the zombie movie, which is all well and good. I love seeing the walking dead get blown up as much as anyone else. But Romero excelled at imbuing his shambling undead with a certain societal ire and venom that modern zombie movies simply lack. Dawn of the Dead was a critique on American consumerism, and Day of the Dead similarly championed the post-Vietnam anti-war sentiment that had grown even stronger at the height of the Cold War. But Night of the Living Dead got the ball rolling with an intelligent, menacing story of prejudice and paranoia set in the backdrop of the original zombie apocalypse. It’s a brave, ballsy movie, with both its narrative and thematic content being risqué at the time of its release. Not to mention its graphic violence. But at the end of the day, Night of the Living dead is still possibly the greatest zombie film of all time, and one of cinema’s most enduring works of horror.
Also, it’s the one movie that I can still threaten my mother with. Man, that woman hates zombies.
The Night of the Hunter
Similar to Psycho and Freaks, The Night of the Hunter is another classic film that’s difficult to pigeonhole into the horror genre, only because it happens to largely predate the very tropes that it invokes. It’s a thriller first and foremost, telling the story of serial killer and ordained minister Harry Powell (played hauntingly by Robert Mitchum in a career-defining role) as he stalks and slashes his way through the American south in the 1930s. He’s a terrifyingly enigmatic and oddly charming villain, whose influence echoes down through the ages in works by Stephen King, the Coen Brothers, and Martin Scorsese. His “love” and “hate” knuckle tattoos are some of the most iconic pieces of cinema iconography in pop culture, appearing in everything from The Simpsons to Taika Waititi’s Boy. Even if you’ve never seen this film, you’ve no doubt seen its fingerprints on countless other works of fiction throughout the decades. But what really makes this film so chilling is how Powell’s religious fervor and justification through God of his crimes has made Night of the Hunter only grow more and more relevant over time. His performance now evokes prosperity gospel televangelists like Joel Osteen, right-wing political talking heads like Charlie Kirk, and Republican “warriors of Christ” like former vice president Mike Pence. It’s a terrifying picture of the depths that a person can go to when they’re confident the divine approval of their actions, and it makes for one of the most harrowing and frighteningly realistic thrillers of the era, if not ever.
Don’t let a film’s age bias you towards its quality or entertainment value. There are films in black-and-white, pre-technicolor, that are better than anything you can catch at an Imax theater nowadays. And some of the scariest things you’ll ever see play without a single pixel of color. Give them a chance, and you’ll discover a whole world of cinema that you’ve been missing out on this whole time.
But also, don’t let anyone try to snob you and tell you that the only “real cinema” existed before the digital age. Those people are idiots. Good movies are good movies, people, regardless of their color pallette.