Confession: I love old scary movies. I like them when they’re cheesy. I like them when they’re creepy. I like them when they’re over the top and gory. Many of those old movies just get lost in the shuffle, I suppose because many are black and white. So, seeing as it’s about time for you to get your Halloween on, I thought I’d share with you some of my all time favorites. I focused on movies that I don’t hear talked about that much. You’ve heard of (and hopefully seen) the original Night of the Living Dead, so that’s not going on here. Same with Psycho, etc.
Now, the scares in some of these are different than what’s found in modern movies. Modern movies feel the need to show you everything and hold back very little. Old movies created great tension by withholding information. And some of these stories, and the way they’re written are just so amazing. It was also surprising to see some really twisted and dark themes in many of these.
Some of these are really obscure. Some of them are in the public domain and are free for you to download. But these are all great movies in my opinion, and if nothing else, a great introduction to old movies if you’ve been hesitant about jumping in that pool. If you watch any of them, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or on our Facebook page. Be sure to check for the movie with the year provided. Many of these movies were groundbreaking and have been remade since, usually with not such great results.
The names link to the DVDs on Amazon. In no particular order, I offer up:
You know how everyone and their mom has those “love hate” tattoos across their knuckles? Well, it started because of this movie. In Night of the Hunter, one of the creepiest actors ever Robert Mitchum plays a preacher that is a very bad man. You can have your Leatherfaces and your Jasons. I would gladly be roommates with those guys before I would befriend Mitchum’s preacher. One of the most relentless and creepy villains of all time. No wonder that he was later cast as the bad guy in the original Cape Fear (1962), which is another amazing scary movie.
It’s movies like Experiment in Terror that made me want to write this post. I swear someone out there has some secret list of these movies that I’ve never heard of that I would love to see. This movie blew me away. It stars the incredible Glenn Ford (who starred in three of my favorite non-scary movies, Superman, Blackboard Jungle and the original 3:10 to Yuma), as well as the incredible Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers. All TREMENDOUS actors. It was also directed by Blake Edwards (who directed the old Pink Panther movies). This movie starts very fast, as Lee Remick is threatened in her garage, and just doesn’t let up. Very tense movie. For whatever reason, the DVD isn’t available on Amazon, but it’s available to download via Amazon Instant Video (it’s not available on Netflix at the time of this writing).
This is a favorite in the Perkins household. Directed by the great Otto Preminger with titles by the legendary graphic artist Saul Bass, this movie was just a great thriller. It’s about a girl that’s gone missing – OR HAS SHE!!?!?!? It had us guessing until the end, and it’s still awesome after repeated viewings. Features the creepiest use of old dolls I’ve ever seen (barely beating out “Baby Jane” below) as well as great acting. It also features a really random, totally out of place cameo by The Zombies, but the song they play is rad. My wife’s favorite quote from the movie is from the Dollmaker: “This doll had almost been loved to death. You know, love inflicts the most terrible injuries on my small patients.”
Ah! This movie is so great! It’s almost too real. It features two of cinema’s great classic actresses – Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. These were both headstrong women in real life, and they HATED each other. Davis was a Communist. Crawford an extreme conservative (and the originator of the phrase “NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!” as the inspiration for the real life Mommie Dearest). Davis plays a bitter washed up child star who is forced to take care of Crawford, who plays her crippled sister. This movie is just tense. Even if you didn’t know they wanted to kill each other in real life. Davis is a NUT CASE in this movie, dude. So creepy. If you like this, also check out Davis in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Or if you side with Crawford, check her out in Strait-Jacket. All great movies.
Yeah, I know. Two “what ever happened to… ” movies in a row. I was surprised too, and therefore didn’t have high hopes for this obscure gem. But this movie is fantastic! It was really well directed, doing a great job of SHOWING instead of TELLING. This one is in color, so it might be easier to stomach if you’re newer to the old movie scene. In this movie, a woman’s housekeeper starts to suspect her of foul play. It’s a very tense, well told story. And it’s a story comprised of almost all women, which is refreshing.
OK. Here’s where I’m going to start losing respect. I just can’t help it. I love old gory movies. It’s about a restaurant that serves meat – MADE FROM PEOPLE!! BWAHAHAHA! But probably one of the first movies to be on that subject. In the pre-Yelp era, this apparently used to be a big fear. To lose even more of your respect, this movie is not only pretty gory, but it’s also a comedy. And I love it. Sorry. I suppose that it’s not that scary, but those motorcycle guys are kinda creepy, right? And it’s also in color, so the completely opaque red paint that they try to pass off as blood really pops. If you like this, also check out The Abominable Dr. Phibes (and the sequel) starring Vincent Price. For less gore and more laughs, check out the original Little Shop of Horrors, which is in the public domain.
Ah, Hammer Films: the first name in horror for the best part of the 20th century. This one is a more obscure gem that I’ve only found on a compilation of old Hammer movies. The premise of the movie sounds lame, so I won’t give out all of the details. But basically, this guy is killing off his lady friends, and his young (16 year old) stepdaughter suspects him. The movie is so tense as the little girl (FABULOUSLY acted by Mandy Miller) knows and the killer knows that she knows. I wish “snorkel” was a scarier sounding word, because it took me a few minutes to trust this movie. But I did. And it was awesome. If you like this one, might I also recommend Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock – another really tense movie where she really shows her acting chops as she stretches out of her comfort zone.
OK, this one you’ve probably heard of. It was remade a few years ago by Wes Craven (I haven’t seen it). But this is an incredible movie, especially for its time. The creepy imagery here is so far beyond what you might expect from a movie this old. The movie takes place in Salt Lake City, and features an old amusement park that was vacant. Those scenes still creep me out. After watching this movie, I was also really surprised to see how many modern movies had stolen from it. It’s a bummer we never saw much else from the star, Candace Hilligoss, because I’m pretty sure she wanted to make out with me. This is another one of those AMAZING movies that is now in the public domain – meaning it is free to download/copy legally. For other great scary public domain classics, check out the original Night of the Living Dead, Vincent Price in The House on Haunted Hill, and Francis Ford Coppola’s ax murderer directorial debut movie Dementia 13.
Who would’ve ever thought that evil could have existed like this in the 1950′s? But it did (at least in this movie). The Bad Seed is about an evil little girl. A REALLY evil little girl. The little girl actress is just plain creepy. Everything about this movie is creepy, actually. Even the way they give credit to the actors at the end is disturbing to me. Usually, “evil little kid” movies don’t work for me. I would have no problem smacking Damien upside his stupid little head and sending him to his room. But this little girl delights in the evil she does so much. It’s almost like the actress playing the little girl really didn’t understand that what she was doing was so evil. Love it.
The Collector is one of those great movies that I can’t believe I don’t hear more about. It was directed by the legendary William Wyler, who directed huge movies like Ben-Hur and Funny Girl. It also stars Terence Stamp (better known to me as GENERAL ZOD, who I still kneel before in my heart). Zod, er… I mean – Stamp, plays this really psychotic lonely dude that gets a crush on a girl, then decides to take her and keep her. Locked up. In his house. In the middle of nowhere. This is a really well made movie, and it was just tense and creepy through the whole thing. It gave me a much more profound appreciation for Stamp and his acting skills. I wanted to alternately hug him and stab him at different points in the movie.
OK, so this movie isn’t that obscure. But it was SO GOOD! This movie is about the super cute Aubrey Hepburn as a blind woman (!), stuck in a house with people trying to harm her (kinda – you’ll see when you watch it). If that isn’t the greatest plot for creating tension ever devised, I don’t know what is. If you’ve never seen this, it’s about time to correct that. And at the time of this writing, this movie is available for free streaming from Amazon Instant Video.
I’m not exactly sure how I found this movie, because it’s like $80 on Amazon, and not available on Netflix. But if you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a great movie. It’s probably the least scary movie on here, but it does have some tense and creepy elements to it. It’s basically about a couple that want to kidnap a child to gain wealth and fame. The Mrs. of the equation is a psychic and there are seances and ghosty things, and… well… I don’t want to give too much away. But, like almost all of the movies in this post, it was very unusual, but in a really good way.
[NOTE: This is NOT "Blood and Black Lace"]
I suppose this just barely qualifies as an old movie, but it’s old enough and obscure enough that it made the cut. Blood and Lace is about a poor orphan girl named Ellie Masters, whose prostitute mom was brutally beaten to death with a hammer while Ellie was just a child. And that’s just the beginning of the fun! She goes to an orphanage, where there’s strange things a-happenin’. The head of the orphanage (played by Gloria Grahame) is really creepy to me, even though she was in It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s just constant tension in this movie, and I loved it. It also co-stars Vic Tayback, better known as the iconic diner cook Mel “hey you dingy broads” Sharples from TV’s Alice in the 70′s. This movie isn’t currently available on Amazon, so the link above is to Netflix, where it is currently available to stream.
WHEW. That was a long list. But in case you’re just hungry for more, I’ve included a few “honorable mentions”.
I haven’t seen this in years, but it was the first old scary movie that I remember seeing. I’ve loved them (as well as the mid-1960′s) ever since.
OK, so this is neither old nor scary. BUT, it is a spoof of the worst of those types of movies. It is HILARIOUS. It is written, directed, and stars a hero of mine, Larry Blamire. This movie was so influential that after I showed it to my brother, he made himself T-shirts of different parts of the movie. And everyone I know that’s seen it quotes from it all the time. There’s even a cool sequel. It’s basically about an evil skeleton that comes alive in order to obtain a radioactive material called Atmospherium. Yes, it’s really hilarious and corny. But years later, another filmmaker would take this idea and push it even further, making BILLIONS on an even more ridiculous and corny movie: Avatar.
This is cheating a bit, but I totally dig movies by these guys, as cheesy as they are sometimes. And they didn’t quite make the cut because I don’t find them particularly scary. At best, they occasionally get a little tense, sometimes creepy, sometimes a little over-the-top gory. Not usually scary. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t absolutely LOVE them anyway.
I LOVE almost anything that’s over-the-top. I’m glad that other people love some films to just stagnate and sit there. But I want MOVEMENT and ENERGY and LIFE! I like using ALL CAPS and EXCLAMATION POINTS!! And William Castle was just like that. Way over the top. He had gimmicks for most of his movies, such as an insurance policy that you had to sign, releasing the theater of liability for “death by fright”. Brilliant. Through these gimmicks, he would interact with his audience in a way that just isn’t done anymore. My favorite Castle flicks are probably The Tingler (with Vincent Price) and Homicidal. Castle also was a producer on Rosemary’s Baby, so you know he has it in him to do some great stuff on occasion.
Roger Corman also oscillated back and forth between cheesy and scary. Corman is my idol because he understood the financial aspect of movies, which is THE reason that I’ve seen most filmmakers fail (and we’ll be talking a lot about on this site). It’s because he tried to make movies as cheaply as possible that he was able to make so many movies (most that he self-financed!!) and continue to do what he loved. The story behind one of my favorite Corman flicks, the original Little Shop of Horrors is a great example. I also loved Corman’s Bucket of Blood and all of the great Edgar Allen Poe movies Corman made with Vincent Price.
Perhaps during future Halloween seasons, I’ll update this post with my favorite Hammer Films and Samuel Z. Arkoff movies. But for now, that should be enough to keep some vintage scares in you. Thanks for reading!
Creator of Movies & Computers. Filmmaker. Author of How to Cheat in After Effects, The After Effects Illusionist, and of several video training series on Lynda.com, Video2Brain, Total Training, and VTC.