Our writers are expanding their horror horizons and discovering classic horror films — from the 1920s to the early ’80s — for the first time. Join us!
We may not be able to spend the summer traveling and exploring new lands, but we’re determined to find the bright side of isolation and social distancing. And fortunately, we still have the magic of cinema to take us places we’ve never been. We also have a great excuse to finally see many of the films on our “to be watched” list that we never had time for before.
To encourage more new horror discovery, I asked the Morbidly Beautiful writing staff to pick a film on their horror bucket list — something they’ve always wanted to see (or felt they should see) but never got around to seeing — and write about their movie watching adventure.
20 of our writers were up for the challenge, myself included, and we watched films ranging from the very early days of cinema to those of recent years. Our picks included films considered absolute horror essentials to modern cult classics and indie festival darlings.
In part one of this group article, 10 of our writers share their thoughts on films from the 1920s to the early ’80s, seen for the first time. Stay tuned for part two, where we explore films from the mid-’80s to the present.
1. Haxan (1922)
Explored by The Angry Princess
A silent historical documentary from the early 1920s may not exactly sound like the most exciting cinematic adventure, but I was completely spellbound by writer/director Benjamin Christen’s masterpiece, Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages).
Based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century German guide for inquisitors, Häxan is a fascinating and horrifying study of the religious fear, paranoia, misunderstanding of mental illness, and misogyny that lead to the infamous witch hunts. Told in four parts, the film traces the history of the persecution of “witches”, from the primitive era to medieval times to then-modern times, when the idea of the “hysterical woman” first took hold. The film’s documentary style is dramatized with unsettling horror sequences.
Christensen pulls no punches in his thoughtful, historically accurate depiction of medieval torture and the suffering experienced by those accused of witchcraft. As a result, Häxan was banned in the United States and heavily censored in other countries for what were considered at the time graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion.
Part earnest academic exploration, part dazzling visual spectacle, and part truly terrifying horror movie, it’s a film that manages to still feel eerily relevant 100 years later.
Häxan fluctuates between being wonderfully weird, even whimsical at times, while at other times shocking in its depiction of real life horror and man’s cruelty in the face of ignorance and fear.
Although the time of torturing and brutally murdering innocent people, mostly women, for suspected witchcraft may seem a very distant memory, there are frightening parallels to be found in modern times. I shuddered during the discussion of how young, beautiful women were often accused of witchcraft for the “crime” of inadvertently eliciting salacious thoughts in men; immediately reflecting on modern rape culture and society’s tendency to blame women for being victimized by men.
Häxan is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and now I fully understand why. It’s readily available to watch for free, and it’s a meaningful and deeply affecting experience you won’t soon forget.
In short, Häxan is utterly bewitching.
2. The White Reindeer (1952)
Explored by Matthew DuPée
There’s something to be said about the starkness of windswept snowy expanses, especially those forbidden frozen hamlets found in the Scandinavian reaches of the Arctic Circle. Fascinating. Frightening. Visually stunning. My first cinematic experience with the Lappland region – a sparsely inhabited region encompassing northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and portions the Kola Peninsula of Russia – came after watching Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander’s yuletide fantasy opus, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010).
Not long after, I discovered Finnish filmmaker and documentarian Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura), a fantasy-horror vampire film with a strong arthouse aesthetic originally released in 1952.
In short, Blomberg’s film is an unexpected masterpiece – a visually stunning black and white folkloric marvel depicting a Sámi legend of a shapeshifting witch who transforms into a rare, white reindeer before killing her male reindeer herder victims with a fanged bite to the jugular.
The story follows Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen), the daughter of a witch, who eventually marries a local reindeer herder named Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä). But Pirita grows frustrated and lonely as Aslak’s devotion to the reindeer herd results in long periods of his absence. Pirita seeks counsel from a local shaman who provides her a love potion to ease her woes, which backfires despite her sacrificing the first living creatures she sees (a white reindeer), and instead transforms her into a shapeshifter – human to white reindeer to vampiress.
Blomberg approaches the material with a master stroke, relying upon clever editing and an austere style intimately intertwined with the eerie score provided by composer Einar Englund.
Most of the film plays out like a silent era classic, with minimal dialogue and exquisitely composed shots capturing the power of Kuosmanen’s acting prowess.
The film is also anchored with meaningful feminist themes, portraying Pirita’s struggle with domestic responsibilities and isolation within a male-controlled culture centered around reindeer herding. Of course, the underlying theme of Pirita’s desire to satisfy her sexual appetite (as the white reindeer) in contrast to her culture’s conservative expectation to live a selfless, sexually unfulfilled existence is a powerful, timeless subtext.
Kuosmanen, who was married to Blomberg at the time of production, also co-wrote the film, which earned the Jean Cocteau-led jury special award for Best Fairy Tale Film at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival (the only time that award was ever presented) and later won a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film in 1956 during the film’s North American release. Thankfully, a 4K restoration of The White Reindeer was completed by the National Audio-visual Institute of Finland in 2017 and made available on Blu Ray and DVD by The Masters of Cinema Series.
The White Reindeer is a majestic, must see folkloric horror masterpiece that is truly mesmerizing.
3. Black Sunday (1960)
Explored by Kelly Gredner (Spinsters of Horror)
There aren’t many horror films that are considered “prime” viewing that I haven’t seen. After 25 years of being a horror movie fan, I have bared witness to all kinds of spooktacular sub genres and films.
However, one did remain, and that was Mario Bava’s Gothic Italian horror classic, Black Sunday (1960), otherwise known as The Mask of Satan.
Bava was a pivotal and influential figure in Italian horror, and I was severely lacking in my horror knowledge for having not seen the film. Recently, the opportunity arose to sit back and immerse myself in the world of Bava’s Asa Vajda, the vampiric witch.
Black Sunday is one of the most aesthetically pleasing, stunningly made films I have ever seen.
It’s incredibly captivating and iconic as hell!
I often find horror films of the 50s/60s lacking suspense or a truly compelling story, but Black Sunday delivers the goods. The opening scene sets the tone, with the film’s imagery enhanced by the gothic atmosphere. It’s spooky and commanding. And as someone who enjoys the darkness, I was immediately entranced.
Black Sunday also touches on the concept of the duality of women through the portrayals of an evil witch (Asa) vs the innocent virgin princess (Katia). It stars the infamous Gothic horror actress, Barbara Steele, in one of her many dual roles, and it was through this film that I was introduced to her work.
BLACK SUNDAY gives me everything that I want out of a horror film: bleakness, death, carnage, and macabre imagery with a side of social commentary.
I couldn’t help but be completely seduced by its dark magic.
4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Explored by Lizzy VB
After over 30 years of horror fandom, I really don’t have an excuse for not having seen Night of the Living Dead. I guess I had always planned to save it for some special occasion, like a cold Halloween night, or perhaps a full moon on a Friday the 13th. But I guess a sweltering hot evening on a regular Friday in July is as good a time as any.
Believe it or not, I went into the film almost completely blind — aside from generally knowing it’s about cannibalistic reanimated corpses, I really had no idea what I was in for.
The first thing that struck me is how old it felt. It’s unusual to see a movie from 1968 in black and white (for context, contemporary films include Rosemary’s Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey). The low budget effects gave it a kind of outdated feel — almost like an extended (albeit extreme) episode of The Twilight Zone — yet there was also a kind of timelessness. The special effects may have aged, but the scares certainly didn’t.
The other thing that stood out is how different the original zombies look compared to zombies of today. Rotting flesh and foaming teeth have their place, but there is something distinctly disturbing about “ghouls” that are almost indistinguishable from living people.
Films that came after like It Follows are so effective because they make something mundane (like a person walking towards you) seem like the most menacing thing imaginable. The symbolism of being relentlessly stalked by dead people, plus the rather bleak ending for all the characters, left me with a sickening feeling of inevitability.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve been through, or even how you die…everyone gets thrown into the same pile at the end.
Worries about the invisible threat of radiation causing chaos and carnage haunted many Americans in the 1960s, as did harsh reminders that if a nuclear bomb went off, you could be anywhere at any time with anyone, leaving you stuck somewhere without any warning while society collapsed around you. Sound familiar?
After everything, the thing I honestly found to be the most unsettling was the closing credits montage. The images of police piling up bodies (especially the body of a murdered Black man) were chilling, and the music was unexpectedly eerie compared to the otherwise overblown score. We’ve all seen pictures like that before, and not just in the movies.
For a moment, the story seemed to step out of the fantasy realm and into the real world.
Maybe what scared me most was the concept that when the time comes and society as we know it falls apart, it could be any of us in that pile.
5. The Last House on the Left (1972)
Explored by Alli Hartley
Every horror fan has their trigger — that one thing that, for every monstrous theme we greedily consume, somehow always makes us recoil. For some, that thing is cannibalism. For others, it is the death of children or animals. For me, it’s rape.
I can’t take movies that use rape to titillate, as the camera lingers on breasts and thighs and encourages us to demean some poor woman just as her aggressors do. Though I have incredible respect for Wes Craven, this is the reason I have, so far, avoided The Last House on the Left. I knew only that it had a gruesome reputation. The reactions back in 1972 were ones of shock and, in some cases, anger.
However, I should have trusted Mr. Craven. The Last House on the Left is much more than your standard blood-and-guts sexploitation film.
In true ‘70s fashion, it was one of those iconic indie films that was too shocking to be ignored and launched a brilliant career.
True to form, Wes Craven infuses his young victims, Mari and Phyllis, with that blend of innocence and recklessness that defines a teenager. Mari is no angel, but she’s not a whore either. She is loving and saucy, eager to explore the world but just as eager to believe that the world is good. Phyllis is a bit more world-wise; she has a “reputation” and comes from a “bad neighborhood.” And yet her actions once the girls are captured are pure heroism. She mothers Mari and coaches her through an unimaginable ordeal. She sacrifices herself to give Mari a chance at escape.
For the first two thirds of the film, the narrative switches between multiple storylines, as Mari’s parents prepare for her birthday party, and the inept cops try to follow up on Mari’s absence. Despite the jarring doofiness of the cops, the transitions work well. This is partly because The Last House on the Left’s score is constantly counter to its story. Lighthearted songs are played during the cruelest scenes, and the melancholy ballad “The Road Leads to Nowhere” threads throughout the early scenes, tinging them all with darkness.
As far as the outrageous gore, as often happens, my expectation was far worse than the reality. The perpetrators were exceptionally cruel, but the editing left most acts implied rather than exposed. What injury we did see was left a bit toothless with the amateurish makeup effects.
Nonetheless, The Last House on the Left demands to be seen.
6. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Explored by Danni Winn
I shamefully have a large number of movies in my ‘Need to Watch’ pile. It has become a monumental stack that continues to expeditiously grow despite my continued commitment to do nothing but watch movies, specifically horror. So when this opportunity arose to peruse my pile that’s accumulated and pick a title that I somehow have neglected for ages, I jumped at the chance. A few films popped into my head, but the one that kept standing out was Don’t Look Now, starring the legendary Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.
Released in the winter of 1973, Nicolas Roeg directs this masterful feature film adaptation of Daphne de Maurier’s short story of the same name; a story exploring grief, loss and skepticism of the supernatural. My first time with this movie was not gentle.
Don’t Look Now opens with a heartbreaking accident involving the daughter of John Baxter (Sutherland) and his wife, Laura (Christie). Utilizing innovative and stylish editing techniques and cinematography, Roeg immediately drew me in to the couple’s tragedy and kept me captivated throughout the film.
Although the couple love each other dearly and have maintained a strong marital bond, they both suffer greatly. When Laura has an unexpected exchange at a cafe with two sisters who offer exactly what the grieving mother needs — a conduit to communicate with her lost child — a series of unusual encounters and intuitions ensue.
Roeg doesn’t rely on jump scares or gore.
Instead, he consumes the viewer with chilling complexities and his uncanny ability to conduct a film so mysterious, tense, and tender at the same time.
The film made me care deeply for these two individuals and their unfortunate circumstances. And it damn near made me go mad when John refused to connect the omen-tastic dots laid out before him. I was definitely emotionally invested in Don’t Look Now.
Wildly ahead of its time, Don’t Look Now was an experience I was not prepared for and contemplated for days afterward.
Beautiful and haunting, it’s criminal I didn’t dive into this one sooner.
7. The Exorcist (1973)
Explored by Allyssa Gaines
I like to pride myself on having seen many of the classic horror films. However, for some reason, I had never gotten around to watching The Exorcist. Of course I had heard a lot about the movie, seen all the memes inspired by it, and heard rumors of the film’s “cursed” status. But none of that prepared me for the experience of actually watching the film for the first time.
For those who don’t know, The Exorcist introduces us to a sweet, 12-year-old girl named Regan (Linda Blair), and we watch as she becomes possessed by a cruel and powerful demon. Her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), does not know what to do to help her daughter, initially suspecting that her daughter is ill. After several tests revealing no medical cause for Regan’s strange behavior, doctors suggest psychiatric help. But it soon becomes clear that her problem is neither physical nor mental. It’s something else entirely.
As a last resort, Chris reaches out for help from Father Damian (Jason Miller), who eventually agrees to perform the dangerous exorcism, along with the help of a more experienced priest, Father Merrin (the legendary Max von Sydow).
There are so many things to love about this movie, from the film score to the makeup effects.
There are also many infamous scenes that shocked and terrified audiences at that time — and continue to affect modern viewers like myself. For me, the scene that truly made my jaw drop was the notorious crucifix scene (I won’t go into details, but if you’ve seen the film, you know why it is so shocking).
Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil is definitely the best part of this movie. All of the performances were stellar, but Blair’s portrayal of innocence corrupted sent chills down my spine. She managed to convince me she was actually possessed by a demon.
Despite being nearly 50 years old, this is one of the creepiest horror films I have ever seen. For anyone who still hasn’t seen The Excorcist, I highly recommend you discover for yourself why this film tops so many “Best” and “Scariest” horror films of all time lists.
Watch this one. But…maybe…don’t watch it alone.
8. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Explored by Kourtnea Hogan
A few weeks ago, I took a small adventure — if you consider popping over to Ohio to go thrifting (mask in tow!) an adventure. My partner and I just went whichever way the wind blew us, trying to find the best place to sift through long forgotten and surrendered treasures.
We finally stumbled upon one that looked like it had once been a factory warehouse and knew it was the one. Seriously, it took about two hours to wind our way through the aisles. Among the taxidermy and old trunks, we stumbled upon the records. There, at the very front, waiting for me, was the soundtrack for Phantom of the Paradise.
I had never seen it, but I knew it was a big deal. Plenty of my horror acquaintances were obsessed with it, and it seemed like the kind of thing I’d like. I snagged the record; it was $8 and original press. I then managed to find the movie two weeks later.
I’m honestly so mad at myself for not watching this sooner.
Phantom of the Paradise is everything I never knew I wanted in a movie.
I’m crazy about horror musicals, being in love with Stage Fright and Repo! The Genetic Opera, and I couldn’t believe I’d looked over something in this little niche for so long. Everything worked for me. The songs were beautiful, the singers were talented, the set design was out of this world — stuffed full of vibrant colors and gorgeous cinematography — and the story was phenomenal. I guess I should have expected greatness from a 70’s horror film made by Brian De Palma.
I wish you could all hear how loud I yelled when I saw my own Bud the C.H.U.D., Gerrit Graham. And, of course, it was an utter delight to see Jessica Harper (Suspiria). I had no idea she had such a beautiful voice.
Even if it hadn’t been a musical, with fast moving sets filled to the brim with interesting characters, the story itself is just cool. I’m a big fan of evil rock n’ roll movies, and this gave me big Rock & Rule vibes. What’s cooler than a dystopian set around a music mogul?
You’ve got everything you could want and more here: a capitalist dystopia, gross special effects, and someone selling their soul for fame and fortune.
The idea of someone having their soul transposed to a tape in some kind of updated Dorian Gray scenario is brilliant. I’m so thankful that I was finally pushed to watch this thanks to Morbidly Beautiful. I only wish that this flick would gain a wider audience.
And yes, I’ve been listening to the vinyl ever since.
9. The Brood (1979)
Explored by Kirby Kellogg
This summer, as a way to try and keep things varied in quarantine, I decided to start my own personal summer film festival. Since starting it last month, I’ve gotten the chance to watch plenty of movies I missed, including the lovely first two Nightmare on Elm Street films, the absolutely iconic Boots Riley film Sorry To Bother You, and 2018’s Lords of Chaos, a violently mediocre adaptation of the real-life events surrounding the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 90s.
One of the best films I’ve found so far, though, is the 1979 David Cronenberg feature The Brood.
The film centers around Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) and his struggles to raise his daughter Candace (Cindy Hinds) while keeping her safe as strange creatures begin to dog their family. However, the more interesting parts of the film inevitably end up involving Samantha Eggar’s Nola Carveth – Frank’s ex-wife and Candace’s mother. Nola’s undergoing a strange form of psychotherapy at the Somafree Institute; a form of therapy that lets patients release trauma by undergoing strange physiological changes to their bodies.
Nola’s best scenes are with the Institute’s leader Dr. Hal Raglan, played expertly by Oliver Reed.
These two characters really made the film for me with how impassioned they were and how viscerally and dramatically they’re both performed. They’re both over the top, and I loved every minute.
Fun fact about me: I have a passion for films that are campy, with characters that chew the scenery. This movie fits both to a T without losing any of the bleak and horrifying edge that would come to codify later Cronenberg works like 1981’s Scanners or 1996’s Crash.
If there’s a word I could use for this film, it would probably be ‘gooey’. Not the fanciest word, I know. But when you watch Frank’s love interest Ruth (Susan Hogan) get beaten to death in front of her students or see the by-product of this film’s twist, it’s hard to come up with another.
The Brood is a gory, campy little creature feature. And if you want to see some good kills and two actors absolutely killing their roles, dive in.
While not as well-known as Cronenberg’s other movies, it’s still absolutely worth a look.
10. Microwave Massacre (1983)
Explored by Dylan Russ
Microwave Massacre is often regarded as one of the best bad horror movies. From the bizarre settings to the hilariously bad acting, very little of this film seems to work. However, be it the genius of the director or just some dumb luck, viewers are treated to one of the most gloriously off-the-wall and wonderfully insane black comedy horror movies ever made.
The movie follows Donald (Jackie Vernon, Frosty the Snowman) a slob of a man with no real redeeming character qualities. He is an oafish drunk who works construction and hates his wife and her cooking. So he decides to kill her. What follows helps make this one of the most oddly grotesque movies I have had the pleasure of watching.
There are very few movies that leave me speechless and scratching my head after.
This movie had me completely in awe within the first 15 minutes.
My wife popped in and out of the film, and each time she commented on how it was easily on the strangest and worst films she had ever seen. And she isn’t wrong.
Microwave Massacre shouldn’t be good, but god damn it is fantastic. It quickly became one of my favorite, “What the hell am I watching?” films of all time.
Microwave Massacre is like a train-wreck in slow motion — that is, if Frosty the Snowman was the conductor and the cargo was equal parts poorly made food, bad 80’s home décor, and human remains. When my mouth wasn’t hanging agape from the shear craziness this film throws at you, I was laughing hysterically over the fact that Donald is the voice of Frosty in all the classic 60s and 70s Christmas films.
I will never be able to watch those movies the same way again.