4 Iconic genre-defining horror films
Choosing four classic genre favorites is almost impossible. So, instead, these are four of the most influential classic horror movies ever made. Admittedly, maybe they are not movies that initially come to mind. And, they are not choices always available in the United States, but these films are considered unquestionably iconic — genre-defining horror movies.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a stylized nightmare of abstract locations and violent landscapes. It is widely considered the birth of cinematic horror for the overall genre..
The film stars German-born actor-director Conrad Veidt as the murderous somnambulist villain, Cesare. With the rise of the Nazi Party, Veidt fled from Germany to Great Britain. Veidt was best known for his portrayal of Gestapo Maj. Strasser in the classic Casablanca (1942) – where he was the highest-paid actor, so it is interesting, indeed his historical contribution to the genre.
Also starring Werner Krauss as Dr. Caligari, the 1920s black and white film is considered a masterpiece of German expressionism, using stark contrasts and sharp angles to confuse the senses. Enhanced by visual stimuli, the dream-like intensity of each scene results in a horrifying film that communicates the fear and mistrust of the isolated post–World War I culture.
First released in February 1920, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s initial box office gross was $4,713. Highly recommended, with a runtime of less than one hour; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, and is a defining creation within the horror genre.
Cat People (1942)
Directed by Paris-born Jacques Tourneur, Cat People (1942) was Hollywood’s first true low-budget horror success story for the genre. Written by DeWitt Bodeen, the film was overseen by David O. Selznick’s assistant, Russian-born horror-producer, Val Lewton. Viewed by many as the beginning of this Lewton’s influential and infamous career, the film was credited with saving the financially failing RKO Studios.
This landmark production, a pre-cursor to Indie-style filmmaking for the horror genre, signed an entire cast of unknowns, including Simone Simon, Tom Conway, and Kent Smith.
The film’s plot is simple. A New York marine engineer Oliver Reed marries East Russian immigrant Irena Dubrovna — a fashion sketch artist. Dubrovna fears that, descended from evil, she will transform into a fabled Serbian cat person on their wedding night.
This genre classic was filmed in just 18 days and rumored to have directly influenced Alfred Hitchcock. However, the Cat People‘s revolutionary contribution to the horror genre is from its iconic “bus scene.” This tension-filled scene is credited with the birth of “jump scares” — devices that continue to serve as horror’s most effective scare methods.
The Uninvited (1944)
Where would Sam and Dean Winchester and Supernatural be without The Uninvited?
Filmed in Great Britain and Directed by Lewis Allen, The Uninvited was one of the first haunted-house films in the genre to treat ghosts as legitimate threats and horror sources.
The film’s influence on horror can still be felt. Guillermo del Toro lists it as one of the titles having a significant impact on his filmography.
The Uninvited tells the tale of Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald. Siblings, enchanted with an abandoned Cornish seaside home, take up residence there – quickly discovering it is haunted. The hauntings escalate as Roderick (Milland) becomes romantically entangled with the daughter of the former house owners. While relatively simple, almost stereotypical by modern standards, the plot of this genre classic is surprisingly complex, with subtle nuances that enhance the film’s tension.
The acting performances of stars Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey are exceptional. A black and white foundation suits the genre film completely. In-camera ghost effects that rely on lighting, sound, and wind machines combined with the film’s mood create an almost ethereal quality and a hauntingly surreal soundscape. This movie defines “spooky.”
And one more — quite possibly my favorite.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
After WWII, interest in horror movies diminished. As a result, studios struggled for ways to resurrect one of their more profitable genre sectors.
The horror-comedy was born.
Most horror movies interjected some humor to relieve the audience’s tension. However, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein crossed into true genius — setting the standard for horror comedies. The film created a new sub-genre of horror and left an impact that’s still imitated 75 years later.
This award-winning film stars Bud Abbott and Lou Costello as Chick and Wilbur, respectively. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was filmed on location at the Benedict Castle in Northern California. Abbott and Costello, the famous slap-stick comedic pair, stumble and bumble onto Dracula’s scheme to steal Wilbur’s brain for use in the Frankenstein monster. Chaos ensues.
The pairing of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and established monsters like The Wolf Man and Dracula a la Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi, was movie gold – spawning a time-tested franchise.
And, here is the trailer for “The Univited” from 1944…