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Eerie Essentials: 8 Important and Influential Films From the Golden Age of Horror That Every Genre Fan Should See

Horror films are juxtaposed metaphorical manifestations of the monsters Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers lumbering around respectively in their Friday the 13th and Halloween films: they simply will not die. 

George Melies’ three-minute 1896 short film Le Manoir du diable, also known as The House of the Devil and The Haunted Castle, unknowingly launched the horror film genre. It was the first motion picture to present macabre elements like haunted houses, bats and cauldrons to the fledgling world of movies, and it marked the infancy of scary films.

In the over 120 years that have passed since The Haunted Castle’s Paris premiere, the horror film genre has flourished and become cinema-centric for a world full of rabid fans indulging in everything from the Universal Monsters of the Golden Era; Vincent Price’s collection of creepy classics (House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler); Hammer Horror that added color and blood to the exploits of Dracula and Frankenstein; Hitchcockian Masterpieces like Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963); Slasher icons including Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, Chucky and Pinhead; and beyond to today’s splatter and ghost-story culture of Saw (2004) and Insidious (2010) titles.

But it’s those Golden-Age days that set the wheels in motion. So, here is a list of eight of the most influential, horrifying and entertaining macabre movies from the earliest days of cinema and several little-known facts to quench your trivia thirst. These are must-sees for all scary movie aficionados.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

97 years ago, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) opened in Berlin. The film is a sterling example of German Expressionism, which found fruition just prior to the first World War. The movie revolves around the evil Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) who uses young Cesare (Conrad Veidt) to carry out his diabolical deeds. And even though this is a silent picture, Caligari remains one of the best early representations of the horror genre. It is a must-see for any enthusiast of the macabre.

Co-starring: Lil Dagover and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski/Runtime: 67 minutes/Rated: Unrated

TRIVIA:

  • Caligari is well-known as the first full-length horror film.
  • Actor Conrad Veidt went on and played Major Strasser 22 years later in the classic Casablanca (1942).
  • Screenwriter Hans Janowitz got the idea for the story after attending a carnival and discovering that a young girl was killed there.
  • Most of the sets you see on film are made of painted paper.
  • The actors made approximately $30 a day for the shoot.

Nosferatu (1922)

Max Shreck in Nosferatu

Directed by F.W. Murnau, the first feature film adaptation of Dracula follows the evil Count Orlok (Max Schreck), as he unleashes his hideous vampire powers on his unsuspecting prey.

Co-starring: Greta Schröder, Gustav von Wangenheim, Georg H. Schnell and Gustav Botz/Runtime: 81 minutes/Rated: Unrated

TRIVIA:

  • Although the characters have different names, Nosferatu is a direct rip-off of author Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.
  • A vampire’s weakness to sunlight appears for the first time in Nosferatu when the evil Count Orlok is vanquished at the film’s conclusion.
  • All prints and negatives of the movie were ordered destroyed after the widow of Stoker won her lawsuit against the filmmakers. However, the film survived as it slowly began to surface in other countries.
  • Nosferatu was banned in Sweden, because of its violent content. In 1972, the ban was finally lifted.
  • Count Orlok, aka Count Dracula, only appears on screen for approximately nine minutes.
  • The actor who plays Count Orlok is named Max Schreck. The word Schreck means “fright” in German.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Phantom of the Opera

A mysterious phantom (Lon Chaney) haunts the Paris Opera and sets his sights on the lovely ingenue, Christine (Mary Philbin).

Co-starring: Norman Kerry and Gibson Gowland/Runtime: 93 minutes/Rated: Unrated

TRIVIA:

  • Chaney became well-known for developing his own make-up for many of his characters, as he did in In fact, Chaney used egg membranes on his eyeballs to make them look cloudy. He also employed fish skin and a bald cap to create the skeletal look for his face.
  • When the Phantom reveals his face to Christine the horrified reaction of actress Mary Philbin is genuine, and not acting, according to cinematographer Charles Van Enger. Chaney kept his make-up a secret until the last possible moment, so Philbin was, in fact, startled at his grotesque appearance.
  • The Phantom has a very unusual-looking bed in the picture. And it was used again years later. as Gloria Swanson’s bed, in the film Sunset Blvd (1950).
  • In 1930, a sound version of The Phantom of the Opera was released and it grossed another million dollars for Universal Pictures. Sadly, this talkie no longer exists and is considered a lost film.
  • When director Rupert Julian was approached to helm the project he simply said, “Lon Chaney, or it can’t be done!”

M (1931)

Directed by Fritz Lang, the film follows the psychopath Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre). The devilish child killer continually alludes the police, but the tide turns when other criminals join the manhunt.

Co-starring: Ellen Widmann, Otto Wernicke and Inge Landgut/Runtime: 99 minutes/Rated: Not rated.

TRIVIA:

  • The film’s serial killer is played by none other than actor Peter Lorre who went on and enjoyed a successful Hollywood career, with pivotal roles in Casablanca (1942), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casino Royale (1954).
  • M is considered the great granddaddy of slasher films, while Psycho (1960) ranks as the granddaddy and Halloween (1978) the father of the subgenre.
  • Nazis banned the movie in July 1934. So, the German film could not be seen in its country of origin.
  • It only took six weeks to film
  • Prior to M, Peter Lorre was known best for his work as a comedic actor.
  • M is short for morder, which means murderer in German.

Dracula (1931)

Directed by Tod Browning, the film introduces moviegoers to Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi).

Co-starring: Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye and Helen Chandler/Runtime: 85 minutes/Rated: Approved for Audiences

TRIVIA:

  • Actor Bela Lugosi played Dracula on stage prior to taking on the iconic role for Universal Pictures. However, Lugosi was not the studios first choice. Universal wanted Lon Chaney to play the part, but the actor passed away of lung cancer in 1930.
  • An alternate version of Drácula (1931), was filmed during the nighttime hours, on the same set at the same time, with Spanish-speaking actors. It is co