As an ever changing medium, film shows its age more than most other art forms. While some films may be popular for their time, they may not always be as relevant. Emotion, however, is something that doesn’t change. The things that scared us in the 1950s are often just as unsettling today. In no particular order, I’m about to tell you 10 black and white titles that are so frightening, they might leave you just as gray as their color palettes.
Still talked about in film classes and text books to this day, Psycho is one of the unchallenged titans of horror. It tells the story of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a secretary who steals $40,000 in order to pay off her lover’s debts. While on the run, she stops at the Bates Motel and meets the peculiar Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) a meek little man with a dark secret. Soon Marion and her sister Lila are thrust into a world of the twisted and macabre, where they uncover just what Norman and his insane mother are hiding in the basement of the old dark house on the hill.
Psycho is of course the most obvious example on this list, and why shouldn’t it be? It laid the template for what would eventually become the slasher film, its villain not a hulking monster but a maniac with a kitchen knife. The movie features very little in the way of dated dialogue or scenery, has some pretty frightening displays of graphic violence, and some still uncomfortable sexual themes. The signature film of master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, this movie has an atmosphere that smothers the viewer with each passing minute, and repeated viewings don’t make it any easier to catch your breath.
2, CAT PEOPLE
Producer Val Lewton was one of the great horror auteurs of the 40s and 50s, and Cat People remains his most effective work. An American man falls in love with and marries a mysterious Serbian immigrant named Irena. Irena fears growing intimate with him, believing she will transform into a panther and devour any man she falls for. As they grow closer, Irena feels the beast within her stir, and soon people start turning up dead. As the sun goes down in the city, the growls of a cat on the prowl fill the night.
Cat People is an early example of the erotic horror film, its villain brought to life by the sexual desires of our tortured protagonist. It also takes a very minimalist approach to its horror, relying almost entirely on superb combinations of sounds and long, uncomfortable silences. Eventually you jump by the dropping of a pin. Cat People keeps you constantly guessing if Irena is simply delusional, or if she is in fact a shapeshifter. Some of the most effective sequences in the film are not of overt violence or people running scared, but of lonely characters wandering down dark streets, convinced that something is close behind them lurking in the shadows.
3, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?
If one word could describe Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, it would be ‘cruel’. Faded child star Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) cares for her paraplegic sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) in their decaying Hollywood mansion. Desiring to regain her former glory and feeling an ever growing contempt for her sister, Jane proceeds to torment and torture Blanche for her amusement. When some people try to save her, Jane resorts to murder to keep her sister captive.
This is one of the most twisted movies ever made, and it is no less an endurance test now than it was in the 1960s. Blanche is subject to unimaginable cruelty, including an especially disturbing scene where she is served her own pet bird for dinner! Bette Davis is brilliant as the unhinged Jane, a washed up has-been who never learned how to grow out of being the spoiled brat who threw temper tantrums all the way to stardom. This film is a precursor to such thrillers as Misery and even Saw, with Jane’s tools of torment proving just as twisted as anything you’ll see today, even if it is light on blood. That they happen to a cripple makes watching it even harder.
4, THE HAUNTING
Robert Wise was one of the best directors of his time, helming such classics as West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Star Trek The Motion Picture. In The Haunting, he departs from his usual genres to deliver quite possibly the greatest haunted house movie ever made. A paranormal investigator invites two women to the deserted mansion of Hill House to assist in his search for proof of ghosts. Soon one of the women, Eleanor (Julie Harris) begins losing her mind and insists there are spirits creeping the halls. Are they real? And if they are just her delusions, does it really matter?
The Haunting once again proves that what you don’t see is infinitely more scary than the most detailed effects, a point confirmed by its own CGI laden remake. The ghosts are never seen, but ever present. You hear them crawling through the walls, creeping down hallways and pounding on doors. It soon becomes clear that something is going on in this house, though it is hard to say how much of it is really supernatural, and how much is simply Eleanor going insane.
5, THE INNOCENTS
One of the darkest and most unsettling haunted house movies of the 60s also featured one of the most bleak endings in this or any other era. The Innocents tells of a young governess (Deborah Kerr) charged with taking care of two children from a wealthy family. As her duties begin, she notices strange behavior in the children as well as a dark presence lurking the grounds. She becomes convinced that a malevolent force is haunting the mansion, planning on doing harm to the children in her care.
The Innocents is one of the shining examples of the ‘evil kid’ genre of horror, but though the children deliver very frightening performances, they are still victims that must be saved. It in many ways is a precursor to The Exorcist, though not nearly as graphic given the time it was made. Like The Haunting and Cat People, the supernatural element may or may not be real. The children may merely be troubled, and Kerr’s efforts to save them may be misguided actions pushing them further over the edge. The movie ends with one of the biggest gut punches ever put to film, and is sure to give most viewers many sleepless nights long after the credits roll.
6, CAPE FEAR
Later remade by Martin Scorcese, the original Cape Fear is one of the most unsettling thrillers to be released in a post Psycho Hollywood. Convicted felon Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is released from prison and proceeds to stalk Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the lawyer who helped put him behind bars. At first the harassment is just annoying. Then the family dog is killed. Bowden soon finds out that Cady plans to take revenge on his family, and plans on committing a crime far worse than murder.
Though the remake is better in many ways, the original Cape Fear is far more stomach churning. This Max Cady is a child rapist. The movie all but spells out that Cady plans to take revenge on Bowden by violating his 12 year old daughter. The film is full of unsettling scenes of Cady leering at the girl, glaring at her on a boat dock, following her to school, and eventually cornering her in a boathouse. That she is much younger here than in the remake, the threat against her is so much more sinister. Mitchum’s performance as the maniacal pedophile is enough to make you feel dirty just by looking at him, and one of the many reasons this film is still very scary.
7, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
Zombies have never been more popular than they are right now, and you can owe that all to this original classic from George A. Romero. Night of the Living Dead follows a group of survivors on the first night of the zombie apocalypse. The characters board themselves up in an abandoned farmhouse and try to find a way to escape. As they fight amongst themselves to come up with a plan, the legion of the undead outside continues to grow. Will any of them survive to see the dawn?
Night of the Living Dead is the first ever flesh-eating zombie film, so the movie is surprisingly heavy on gore and violence. Tire irons piercing skulls, fingers hacked off hands, people stabbed to death with garden tools, and gruesome gunshot wounds. But buckets of blood aren’t the only thing that make this movie work. From the first attack in a cemetery, the movie takes on an almost indescribable bleakness. You just somehow know it won’t end well. It’s all just a question of when and how. In spite of one’s efforts to prepare, the movie hits you like a speeding train once it gets going, filling the screen with images so nightmarish and gruesome that they put most modern horror films to shame.
8, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
The 50s gave rise to the first cycle of science fiction/horror films, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the most ageless. This film, unlike so many others in the genre, took no prisoners. It opens when an seemingly insane man (Kevin McCarthy) is picked up on the highway. The man reveals he is Miles Bennell, a doctor from the town of Santa Mira, and tells of how his entire town was taken over by a race of alien seed pods growing emotionless copies of the townsfolk and destroying the originals. They have spread beyond Santa Mira and threaten to wipe out the entire planet.
This film has been remade three times so far, but with the exception of the 1978 version, none were nearly as terrifying as this end of the world chiller. The movie plays much like a detective story, with Miles slowly piecing together the sinister truth of what is happening in his town. By the time the characters realize what is going on, everyone around them has already been replaced. Men, women, children, all can, and do, fall victim to the body snatchers. By the final act, the heroes find themselves on the run through the desert, the entire town chasing them down. The movie ends on the same frantic and uncertain note it began, our exhausted hero pushed to the point of a nervous breakdown, unsure if he was able to warn the outside world in time.
9, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD
When most think of The Thing, they think of the 1982 masterpiece by John Carpenter. However, the original The Thing From Another World is still a skilled exercise in suspense. A group of researchers near the North Pole uncover a crashed spacecraft, and take the body of the pilot back to their station in a block of ice. Unfortunately for them, the body is still very much alive, and breaks free of the ice, rampaging throughout the base with the desperate crew trying to stop it before it spreads to the outside world.
Unlike the Carpenter version and the story on which it was based, this alien is not the shapeshifting imitator that the story has become known for. While this is a major detriment to the film, it does manage to rise above this limitation and deliver a very tense and claustrophobic thriller. The monster is traced around the station using a geiger counter, a motif that eventually inspired the motion tracker in Aliens. The most frightening scene is when the characters all huddle up in a room, watching the needle go higher and higher until the monster eventually kicks down the door. Carpenter’s version is superior, but this chilly chiller from 1951 still wins where it counts, and will keep you watching the skies.
Them! is one of the precursors to Godzilla, detailing one of cinema’s first and best radioactive monsters. A mysterious spree of killings in Arizona has police baffled. After calling in some scientists, they uncover a massive colony of giant ants, mutated by years of exposure to radiation from bomb tests. As the beasts attack the town, two queens hatch in the nest and take to the skies. Now the heroes must find the queens before they form new colonies, and spread the new, deadly species of insect all over the world.
Them! may well be one of the most influential movies on this list, jumpstarting the radioactive monster trope, delivering the first ever ‘big bug’ movie in a genre that is still popular, and featured one of the first ever strong female leads in horror cinema. Its influences can be felt in many popular films, scenes of characters wandering through the massive ant colony looking suspiciously like the hive in Aliens. Them! may have an incredibly silly premise, but it delivers everything straight faced and with a prevailing sense of dread. The audience is given little relief in the way of budding romances common in 50s horror films. The characters know they haven’t the time for love. With none of the niceties to distract us, we are along for the ride with the characters as they travel all over the country to find those two queens before all is lost.
Horror is the perfect genre for black and white photography. Black and white doesn’t show you bright vibrant colors, only giving you light and shadow. Horror is all about that which lurks in the shadows waiting to pounce, and the shadows in all of the above mentioned films are the blackest of black. To all those looking for a good scare who find yourselves curious about what used to keep people up at night, give these a watch. Maybe not all of them will get you, but I guarantee at least one of them will have you turning the lights on before you go to bed.
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