A Beginner’s Guide to Vintage Horror 1920 – 1960.

Taking a side step from simply looking into the work of one particular director, here we are going to be looking at the highlights from a whole genre.  It seems like a big ask but really the genre of horror needs its past remembering now more than ever.  With the modern interpretation of genre reliant on set pieces or gore and torture, and with very few modern horrors actually being decent films (though there are some very good films), its past is something to be looked at as innovative, exciting and most importantly enjoyable.  It’s also a chance to look at some directors output who wouldn’t necessarily be covered in these articles due to their little output not meriting a few thousand words.

Silent film was touched upon in the Fritz Lang article and the journey into vintage horror is going to start there.  Some of the best examples of horror are from films earliest days and the silent era produced many classic films.  F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu is a splendid starting point.  Not only is it one of the earliest ever vampire films, it’s also one of the few we’ll be looking at here that is still genuinely unnerving.  Perhaps it’s the imagery of actor Max Shrek, stalking empty buildings and boats, but there’s definitely something eerie about the whole film.  It is also a film often given repeat runs in cinemas with Liverpool’s very own CUC showing it a few months ago.  A Masters of Cinema release is available for around £9 but many other editions are available, though few will have the same quality of print transfer.

Benjamin Christopher’s 1922 chiller Haxen is also a bit of a scary watch.  Taking a look, documentary style, at Witch craft and Devil worship in the middle ages, it mixes information with re-enaction which makes it all the more chilling.  Some of the effects are also wonderfully ahead of the time, with the flying witches being visually amazing and the makeup for various demons being effective in the extreme.  A Tartan release is available cheaply for around £5 but does have a colour tint.  The 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera is also a must see.  Starring the highly talented make expert Lon Chaney, it boasts one of the first truly shocking horror reveals and works well as a solid piece of entertainment due to the scale of theatre and its various catacombs where the phantom lurks seeming so real and gothic.  Again this is quite cheap to get hold of but no genuine definitive edition has been released so picture quality will vary.

Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is a good film to watch on a dark night.  It’s rather dreamlike and the simplicity of its composition must have been shocking in its day (after years of German Expressionism).  Though not strictly a vampire film (it’s uncertain what the creatures really are) it’s still a classic silent horror that manages to blend entertainment with some fantastic imagery of shadows and fear.   While still looking at the silent genre, it’s impossible to talk about it without mentioning The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.  It’s probably the most important horror film before Dracula and is eons ahead of its contemporaries.  Though still strictly German Expressionism, the film takes its horror very seriously, though it’s ending is a slight cop out.  It’s still worth a look and, along with Vampyr, is available easily and cheaply.

Moving away from silent cinema, we come to 1931’s Dracula by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi.  It’s definitive in its influence, with very few modern films even being scarcely conceivable without it.  Though time hasn’t been as kind to it as the other Universal horrors about to be discussed, it’s a milestone of cinema and should be seen at least once.  Universal studios took the lead in horror cinema in the 30s and 40s.  Handily there’s a Monster Box Set of the best films from the crop which, until recently was available from HMV for £10.  It included The Wolfman. The Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. What it also included though were two of three horror films made by James Whale.  The best director from the bunch whose wit and ingenuity make his films timeless and a joy to watch.  In the box set are his two Frankenstein films, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Both are monumental but Bride of Frankenstein in particular is probably the best film mentioned in this article.  Its characters are witty, dark and instantly likeable.  The dialogue is sublime and the imagery is iconic even sometimes verging on blasphemy with its portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster being extremely similar to Jesus.

The other Whale film to try and see is his classic The Old Dark House. It’s the typical, “people get lost and need somewhere to stay” scenario but it’s the earliest film to do it and is easily the best.  Again this film stars legendary actor Boris Karloff though in a minor role here rather than the lead parts like Frankenstein’s monster.  Again cheap and easy to find for around a £5, these three whale films in particular would be a good starting point for anyone new to the genre (or at least new to vintage horror)

Universal’s horrors eventually became a consistent stream of sequels and eventual parody, so this is a good point to move away from them and look at the 1940s where other production companies started making decent horror films too.  Val Lewton’s The Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie are fantastic.  The former pretty much invented the technique of making something scary out of nothing (basicallyParanormal Activity’s whole premise).  However both these films are very hard to find in region 2 and even the region 1’s are expensive so perhaps a look online for a download or on Youtube would be the best bet.

The Black Cat and The Raven are both decent horror flicks both starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.  Both are quite similar in tone and feel, though deal with very different stories.  They’re also great fun with both actors clearly enjoying themselves tremendously.  It’s actually quite shocking to see what they could get away with in these films, with one particular scene off an off camera flaying being extremely shocking for it’s time.  Both are again cheap and around £5 each if you’re lucky enough online.  Moving away from the 40’s, the 50’s boast an array of techno colour joys though the first film to look at is again in black and white.

Night of the Demon is a super little film based on a story by M.R James.  Mixing satanic evil, black magic, and some lovely location shots, it’s definitely the best film from the era of the genre and this shows when coming to buy as it’s quite expensive at £12 for the single release.  It’s worth it though, even just for the finale with the dreaded demon finally shown in all its hideous glory.  The temptation to venture into the territory of Hammer Horror at this point is high.  For those unfamiliar, Hammer are a company who made some of the best horror films of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  However, due to the sheer number of films they made, Hammer Horror are getting a separate article to themselves.  Instead we’re going to finish on a director whose work with actor Vincent Price has become a vital pillar to the genre itself.

Roger Corman was a visionary with a love for Edgar Allen Poe.  He’s got five films of his work and we’re going to look at four of them here.  Luckily three of them are in one box set.  The Roger Corman box set contains The Pit and Pendulum. The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death. All three are quite simply brilliant.  Their use of colour is astonishing and Vincent Price is just brilliant and steals all three films.  The Fall of the House of Usher is the most frightening with some rather creepy paintings but it’s Pit and the Pendulum that rules the roost for its breath taking climax.  It retails for around £11 and is extremely rewatchable as well as fun.  Tomb of Ligea is also a great film but hasn’t got the initial shocking colour of the other three.  Its star Vincent Price again steals the show and is the only Corman/Poe film to be shot on location.  It’s available for £3 from most places though would recommend getting the box set first if new to his films.

Tales of the gothic, the spooky and the haunted may seem somewhat out of place these days but  there will always be a place for them in the hearts of cinema fans.  There are many films not mentioned as per usual and still plenty to find but more importantly,  it should make people realise that not all horror is like Hostel and that it is perhaps a genre that’s far more accessible than at first it may seem.

Adam Scovell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s