From the hardcore horror movie fan to the occasional watcher, Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, and JigSaw are household names and pop icons. The infamous pea soup scene in The Exorcist has been countlessly recreated or spoofed and of course it isn’t Halloween until you’ve popped the 1978 John Carpenter classic into your Blu-ray player. But today we are spotlighting movies that have been overlooked, forgotten, or maybe not yet discovered by contemporary audiences. These are influential horror films that due to their age or any other number of factors may not be as well known by casual (and even some diehard) horror fans as they should be. Some of these movies have been moved to mass collection DVDs but they are gems in spite of maybe not having received the kind of treatment they deserve. Several of these movies were seen as innovators upon their release, but were set aside because now they are seen as being from a different time. Others were amazing at the time and are fantastic now, but are still lesser known, taking a backseat to their more popular counterparts. Take a look and perhaps you will discover a few that you have yet to check out!
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Although this film is pretty different from Oscar Wilde’s novel, it has the superb makeup effects of William Tuttle working for it. William Tuttle was a makeup visionary at the time of the film’s release and he was also MGM Studio’s makeup chief from 1950-1970. He was known as the master of wax masks. He even had a wax mask of all MGM’s top actors at the time. He created a technique with wax masks that he called ‘murder’ since you had to melt the wax a certain way that made it look pretty homicidal. The story of Dorian Gray is that of a man who sells his soul so a beautiful portrait of him will age, but he never does. This movie takes this a step further and makes Dorian Gray a pretty bad guy who sins often (murder, one night stands, etc.) Not only does the picture age, it also reflects the crimes he commits throughout the film. The effects are pretty amazing for the time and are surprisingly realistic, not to mention influential to generations of FX artists in the years since its release.
The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962)
This film is one of those classics that was hidden away along the title about giant grasshoppers and killer man eater mermaids, but honestly, I have no idea why. If you haven’t seen this movie, it is well worth a watch! It is supremely creepy with the overall theme (and life lesson) of don’t play God. After accidentally decapitating his wife a scientist is determined to undo his mistake. He sets her severed head up in his lab and basically attempts to cheat death. His wife is awake the entire time, but she develops strange powers that she uses for evil. This movie makes the list because the wife is set up on a table that doesn’t have a tablecloth. The entire movie is shot with clear scenes of there not being a hidden woman kneeling underneath the table. That kind of effects work was legendary for the time and still holds up today. It undoubtedly set a precedent for effects work. It is also noteworthy for being surprisingly haunting for its era and in stark contrast to the monster movies of its time.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
There was a remake of this film in 1999, but the original still holds its own in horror movie history, even though it doesn’t receive its proper credence. Staring Vincent Price, this is one of the original mystery horror dramas that points out our insatiable lust for money and how it can turn us against friends and our fellow man. Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) invites five people to spend the night in a haunted house. But there is a mystery going on (I don’t want to give it away) and even though the end can be seen as a bit cheesy because of the lack of technology, the big reveal, is actually a big reveal and is astounding. This is a Clue/Saw/The Others type movie, but those all took inspiration from House on Haunted Hill.
Village of the Damned (1960)
When most people think of creepy children their minds either run to Stephen King’s Children of the Corn or The Shining, but I always think of Village of the Damned. In fact, this goosebumps-inducing, eerie subgenre wasn’t much capitalized on before this film. At the time Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone, seemed to be the only place anyone realized that realized children in numbers can be terrifying. This movie centers around a village of women who all have children on the same day. Each child is born with platinum blonde hair and startling eyes. By the time they grow up, they become pretty dangerous. All the adults, including the parents, are scared of the children since they exhibit telepathic and other supernatural abilities that they do NOT use for good. This film is one of the pioneers of unsettling horror movies centering around herds of young children and to this day I do not take well to a child staring at me.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
If you view this movie (if you haven’t already) I warn you now that it is extremely graphic and disturbing. But it is also the grandfather of the found footage genre. This genre exploded in popularity after Paranormal Activity. But this film about a group attempting to document the people of the Amazon did it years earlier. This is one of the most gruesome and violent movies ever made and it is extra disturbing because of the found footage aspect. The grainy texture from the camera gives it an authentic feel that sends shivers down the back of your neck and briefly makes you question whether this is fact or fiction. Fun fact: Director Ruggero Deodato was arrested after its premiere in Italy because it was considered obscene, but in spite of all the controversy, it is a hugely influential film.
Nosferatu is perhaps the most influential vampire movies of all time. This is a cult classic that was almost completely destroyed after the directors lost a legal battle to the widow of Bram Stoker (the movie did not have the permission to make a movie based on the novel Dracula). Most copies were ruined and the original music score is lost forever, but luckily, people banded together and copied the film to ensure its survival. It is a beautiful and haunting adaption of the novel on which it is based and its use of makeup and screen shots are truly revolutionary and its influence can still be seen in films today.
The Fly (1958)
Being completely forthright with you now, I will admit this movie scared me so badly that I screamed when one particular scene came on. I had seen older monster movies pro to The Fly and was impressed with the Wolfman and The Creature from the Black Lagoon makeup-wise, but almost nothing prepares you for the beautiful FX work in this movie. Not only is the mask and the fly hand terrifying, but the mask (where the mouth is) actually moves and wiggles and it is quite disgusting. This movie brought makeup and costuming to a whole new level and the work that was done by Ben Nye still influences movie makeup today.