“It’s Halloween — everyone’s entitled to one good scare.”
The horror genre has seen a good amount of variation over the years, with different decades having new and interesting themes — often reflecting the state of the country at the time. Looking back at older horror films is a great way to get an idea of the mentality of society at that particular time. It’s also fascinating to see how filmmakers have changed in terms of the methods they use to best scare their audiences.
If you’re looking to get into the spirit of the spooky season, here are ten of my favorite scary movies made before 1990. I probably spent more time than I should have compiling this and writing out exactly why it is I believe these are some of the best of the best. You’ll definitely see some old favorites here, but hopefully one or more will be a new find!
And yes, there are spoilers ahead. Beware.
THE MUMMY (1932)
Early American horror was obviously heavily influenced by foreign films, particularly those from Germany. We were quickly entering the “Golden Age” of monster movies featuring iconic characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, all of which would later become known as the legends of classic horror filmography. This particular era of future classics of course included 1932’s The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund.
When thinking back on the impact this movie had, this particular scene from the very beginning of the film immediately comes to mind:
That bone-chilling laugh when the unfortunate archaeologist sees Boris Karloff‘s mummy walk off is unforgettable, carrying the mood for the rest of the film. The Mummy has a sense of dread that even modern audiences will feel, though of course many of the scares and special effects in the film are not as convincing nowadays. Yet its legacy as a black and white horror classic is undeniable. The atmosphere Universal and Freund create, with the help of Karloff’s immense talent, are hard to come by in the later Mummy films and franchises.
THE FLY (1958)
It goes without saying that the 50s were a time of immense fear among the American people. These specific fears — invasion, the Cold War, nuclear war — were extremely obvious in the horror films that came out of the decade. For Kurt Neumann’s The Fly, the main character having his atoms scrambled with a house fly’s and coming out mutated and grotesque without a doubt echoes fears surrounding the effects of nuclear war. It also involves the effects of man tampering with the unknown, and that which perhaps he should not have been meddling with from the beginning.
The feeling that something is missing persists throughout the film, at least it did for me when I first watched it. You never see the actual experiment/transport occur, and it opens with an initially confusing scene involving Helene, the scientist’s wife, being discovered operating a hydraulic press. It’s understood soon after that she has apparently killed her husband in the contraption, a murder for which she confesses immediately. We are then given her account of the events that followed prior, and the horror that has actually unfolded.
But, more importantly, that goddamn ending! Few horror films have as chilling an ending as The Fly, which stands out as all the more disturbing when compared to the outdated effects and themes throughout its runtime.
There was of course an infamous remake made in the 80s, starring the charismatic Jeff Goldblum and directed by David Cronenberg. This film saw the scientist’s transformation as occurring much more slowly and horribly, with the fly’s cells gradually replacing his own human ones following his experiment.
The 60s! We put a man on the moon, had sexual revolutions in pop culture and the media — what a time to be alive (for certain groups, I mean)! And for film, that also meant a similar turn of the tides. Horror was a champion of the sexual revolution, in particular, as the genre was at the time seen as very much not mainstream nor were horror films viewed as very distinguished forms of cinema. 60s horror was edgier, with more nudity and considerably more violence than its predecessors.
Hitchcock’s Psycho is especially important as it was the precursor for the slasher genre, the films of which have become ubiquitous in this day and age. It was perhaps too early for the full sexual awakening we saw later in the decade, but compared to earlier horror films it was certainly more risque than audiences were used to. What might seem as incredibly tame now, such as seeing an unmarried couple like Marion and Sam sitting in or on the same bed, was almost taboo at the time. The reveal of Bates being in his deceased mother in disguise, specifically seeing a man wearing women’s clothing and a wig (crossdressing), would have certainly been a cause for scandal in the 1960s.
Psycho of course features one of the most iconic scenes in horror cinema: the shower scene. Not only are you unprepared for the leading lady to be killed off so soon (happening only 47 or so minutes into the film) but the unparalleled score during her murder is iconic in itself. Those screaming, razor-shop violins (thanks to the talented Bernard Herrmann) are the perfect complement for the killing of Marion Crane. It’s an effective scene scare-wise but also as a technical achievement. Hitchcock (or at least his cinematographer and/or special effects team) is deserving of much praise for the straight-on shot of the shower head alone. As for the cast, Anthony Perkins deserves all the praise in the world for his performance. No one will ever be as unassumingly creepy as his Norman Bates.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
An indie-turned-classic horror flick, George A. Romero’s first Night of the Living Dead movie was heavily criticized at the time of its release due to its “extreme gore”. Of course, now modern audiences find it pretty outdated in regard to its violence, and the film has quickly become a cult classic.
What I’ve also found interesting about this movie, as something made at the tail end of the 60s, is the solitary black character acting as the film’s protagonist. Ben is seen as the rational leader of the band of survivors, the one who knows exactly what to do, whether or not his fellow non-zombies see him as such. The fact remains, though, that he continually saves all of their asses and keeps their fortress together until the very end. He is the very last one of the group to survive, a feat almost no black horror movie characters manage to achieve to this day.
Yet Ben ultimately meets his end at the hands of armed men (the “posse”) set out to end the zombie horde, who apparently mistake him for one of the undead. Having the hero of a film killed right at the close, and not even by the primary antagonists, the ghouls, is shocking enough on is its own without the added implications of said hero being a black man.
Night of the Living Dead‘s legacy comes from the fact that it effectively made zombies a “thing”, putting the film forever on the map horror-wise. This means that Romero basically revolutionized the horror genre with his first ever feature film, as well as sparked an entire film series (the “of the Dead” movies).
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
Alright folks, it’s time for the best (in my entirely unprofessional opinion) era of horror — the hopeless 70s. The reason I say hopeless is because spirits were arguably much lower this decade than in the previous, due to a number of political and social tragedies (RIP Jimi Hendrix). Yet as national optimism went down, horror films only prospered. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was in fact made as a result of the director’s reaction to the Vietnam War, and carries many of the themes and ideas surrounding the political climate of the time.
What better image of the decade as well than the group of friends we are introduced to in Texas Chainsaw — all long-haired and packed into a hippie van, headed toward some nebulous road trip. Texas Chainsaw is so effective at scaring people despite having a very simple premise: oblivious teens encounter a murderous, flesh-hungry family in the middle of nowhere and are picked off one by one. It’s a formula we’ve seen a hundred times nowadays. But, again, that sense of hopelessness comes in to play.
As you watch, you realize there is no saving them. The situation feels unbeatable, the family of cannibals too far gone and savage to be reasoned with, as they roar with laughter around an apocalyptic dinner table. You lose the feeling of dealing with human beings entirely, and suddenly feel a sickening “other” vibe from the film’s antagonists. Even the boy in the wheelchair, for all purposes the “innocent” in the film, is slaughtered without hesitation by Leatherface, cut into pieces in his own chair.
Beyond the on-screen terrors, it can be assumed that the behind the scenes dynamic played its part in affecting the actors in Texas Chainsaw, perhaps pulling out a true sense of horror in their performances. It’s well known that the filming of this movie saw cast and crew being exposed to extreme temperatures, unfortunately combined with gag-worthy sets.
Real animal blood and body parts obtained from a nearby slaughterhouse in Texas covered the inside of the house, which no doubt added to the performances of the actors playing the doomed teens. Perhaps the film’s feeling of true terror could not have been achieved without these unique circumstances behind the camera, as well as the socio-political attitudes that motivated the entire project. It’s important to acknowledge that this film also paved the way for the slasher era, which persevered into the early 80s as well.
Brian De Palma should be called the king of slow burn for this movie alone. Based on Stephen King‘s first ever novel, Carrie is apparently one of his favorite adaptations — and for good reason. The whopper of an ending is the kind of scene that sets your nerves on edge, screeching onto the screen so suddenly and shockingly that it practically gives you whiplash. (It helps that the film uses the same violin-heavy theme as Psycho). Throughout Carrie, we get an idea of the kind of repressed upbringing she’s had, and the bullying the outcast high schooler faces from her very own classmates. And we’re given signs that something out of the ordinary is brewing underneath the surface, of course, a hint at Carrie’s telekinetic powers and their link to her emotional distress. However, even all this build-up is no match for that infamous prom scene.
The absolutely startling transition from the smiling, newly crowned prom queen — clearly the single happiest moment in Carrie’s miserable young life — to a blood-covered, almost unrecognizable as a human being, force of vengeance. It’s perfectly executed, and the hysterical voice-over of her mother (“They’re all going to laugh at you!”) playing on a loop fills your stomach with dread. In today’s films, we rarely get such a slow-coming horror scene like the one Carrie makes us wait for, but it is well worth the wait.
On a side note — some of the cinematography in the final scene is top notch as well:
Towards the end of the 70s, one horror film emerged and radically changed the slasher genre for years to come. It put us in the perspective of the killer, placing us as the audience behind his eyes and inside his mask for many scenes. The heavy breathing and inhuman presence of Michael Myers is a staple of Halloween, and the unsettling atmosphere this frame of reference puts us in. We oftentimes become the voyeurs as Michael stalks his victims.
There are also a couple of fantastic instances where director John Carpenter puts Michael just in the periphery of a shot, beyond the action but where we as the audience know he is lurking– unbeknownst to the protagonists. This can be seen in the hardware store scene, where the police sheriff talks with Dr. Loomis (I can never watch Halloween without thinking of Scream thanks to this character name) and Michael driving the stolen car is obvious in the foreground to only us, the viewers.
To say this film is suspenseful would be an understatement, and its merits in this regard have been discussed countless times in the past. But another aspect of Halloween that helps it stand so far above its slasher counterparts is (again) the hopeless environment of its decade. You can’t reason with Michael Myers, and again the menacing and futile mood is created just like in Texas Chainsaw. Except of course this film has a much more subtle sense of dread and horror to it than does the earlier film, released four years prior. You also have much more of a rallying feeling surrounding the final girl, the infamous scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode.
I admit that my favorite scary movie of all time (if you’re a rational human and also do not consider Jaws to be a horror movie) is Halloween, and I feel as if there are a million more things I could say about the film and why it’s so amazing. But I believe all of these things and more have already been said about this particular horror film, and that there’s not much more I can add.
THE THING (1982)
Based on the original film from 1951 (titled The Thing from Another World), John Carpenter’s The Thing can’t help but have nuclear war infused themes as a result of the original film’s decade. The grotesque mutations as a result of the alien interacting with the crew are obviously reflective of these. The paranoia felt throughout the movie also parallel the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union at the time, and the ways the team turns on one another and feel that they can’t trust one another is a perfect depiction of the Red Scare. However, as a film of the 80s, the body horror elements of The Thing fit right into this particular decade.
Special effects were having their heyday, and filmmakers in this time period wanted to show it off as best they could. Creativity reigned, as did gore and oozing creature effects. From a technical standpoint, The Thing is one of the most important films of our time — though it was seen as a failure at the time of its release. Now it would be considered much more of a cult classic than a genre flop.
Besides the use of special effects, The Thing is wholly unique in that it has some tricks up its sleeve when it comes to scaring audiences. I’ve already discussed the way the film hacks into your brain chemistry to more effectively scare you, with the unpredictable nature of the storyline further adding to its overall terror-factor.
Technically, the very first installment in the Alien series, though it came out in 1979, marked the beginning of many important 80s horror trends. Besides this, it’s also an astoundingly tense and paranoia-filled film with one of my favorite performances in a horror-thriller ever by Sigourney Weaver as Ripley (my personal hero, forever and always). Yet I’m going to close out this list with James Cameron’s Aliens, instead. Why? Because quite honestly, as someone who is a huge fan of the first film in the franchise, the sequel is just a much better movie. Overall, in terms of tension and truly blood-chilling moments, Aliens takes the cake.
One scene in particular will always be the greatest piece of evidence as to why and how this sequel stands above its heart-stopping predecessor. It’s towards the end of the film, when Ripley has just rescued Newt from a chest-bursting fate, and the pair are finally starting to make their escape. They run through the destructing halls, dodging fiery explosions. It’s loud and chaotic and you’re utterly caught up in the moment– when suddenly it all stops. They’ve entered a room, one that feels unbelievably quiet. So quiet, that our instincts are telling us that something is wrong, very wrong. Ripley is frozen, holding Newt, staring.
The camera switches to a wider shot.
And we see that they are completely surrounded by pods. They’ve stumbled right into the nest. It’s a moment where your stomach flips with dread, and the sudden silence combined with the horror of the realization absolutely KILLS. This is a completely genius moment on Cameron’s part, and it gets me every time.
Yes, all things considered, Aliens features a very cheesy ensemble of tropes, most obviously seen in its troupe of military characters. The dialogue from this group is at times cringe-worthy, but I still firmly believe these unavoidable cons (for a typical 80s movie, at least) are massively outweighed by the pros.