Horror-Movie Marathon: The Brilliant, Not-So-Scary Classics

Works like Nosferatu may have lost some of their fright factor over the years, but they still fascinatingly show the birth of a genre.

Having decided to spend all of October taking a tour through the various kinds of horror film, it only seemed to make sense to start at the genre's beginning. Early in the month is the best time to binge on horror classics, both to learn about the roots of the movies that would come later, and also to save the biggest scares for as close to Halloween as possible.

Here's the thing with the horror classics: They're not that scary. They can be disturbing, of course. Or unsettling. Or artfully macabre. They can still be great movies. But their ability to frighten on an elemental level may well be lost to the intervening decades, papered over by our collective raised tolerance for adrenaline. So what, then, is the point of a marathon of horror classics?

We don't all have to be film students, of course, but the value of a movie like Nosferatu (1922, directed by F.W. Murnau) is, for horror fans, akin to the value of knowing the circumstances surrounding the Declaration of Independence. The fact that 90-year-old movies can't still frighten in the way they once could is made up for by how unusual and unsettling silent films seem today. The broad gesticulations of the acting, the shadowed negative space in the corners of the frame, and the fact that movies look absolutely nothing like this anymore—all of this gives the film an undeniable air of gothic malevolence, even during the most benign scenes. This is the quality that makes Max Schreck's proto-Dracula such a singularly creepy creature. The 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire takes a fabulist view on the film, speculating that Schreck was indeed a vampire and used by Murnau to make his film, at the cost of a few victims in the cast and crew. A ridiculous, darkly comedic conceit, sure, but one that plays on the sheer surreality that Nosferatu presents onscreen.

Still, though, by modern standards, Nosferatu moves at a snail's pace. As does the Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula (1931, directed by Tod Browning). Here, the horror is merely in the story, pretty similar to the thrill you'd get from reading Bram Stoker's novel. Whole sequences from the book happen entirely offscreen, with onscreen characters narrating the spooky goings-on you're not seeing. That Lugosi's incarnation of Dracula has endured over the years as iconic is a testament to the visual statement he makes. This is classic Count Dracula, all cape and widow's peak, white skin and stealthy fangs. Lugosi's now-campy physical movements represent one of the more resonant throughlines of classic horror. Even if the scares aren't there, the horror villain as a grand, over-the-top figure is a trope that connects Leatherface and Freddy, to say nothing of the era of Vincent Price.

To watch Price's lead performance in House on Haunted Hill (1959, directed by William Castle) is to watch the horror villain in transition. He retains all the unsubtle, extroverted villainy of Lugosi—and of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter for that matter—and he mixes in a kind of sibilant deadpan that lets the audience in on the beginnings of a joke. It's an early example of the kind of horror movie that knows it's dealing with an audience that's familiar with how these stories go. Price never explicitly winks at the audience, but he might as well. There's a Jack Benny streak to his haunted-mansion party-thrower, all "My, my, what could have made dear Nora quite so hysterical?" Lots of classic horror looks more comical now than it did at the time, but with Price was always in on the joke.

The turn of the decade from the 1950s to the 1960s was hugely momentous for horror films:

The Mummy (1959, directed by Terence Fisher) offers a nice counterpoint to the Vincent Price winky/verbose villain, instead giving us Christopher Lee as a kind of silent, unstoppable menace. This is a mantle that would later be assumed by your Michael Meyerses and Jason Voorheeses, though the men behind those masks were never required to have a fraction of Lee's screen presence.

Black Sunday (1960, directed by Mario Bava) was a very early entry in an Italian horror genre that would eventually skew much brighter, bloodier, and more extreme. Much of Black Sunday verges on the dull if you're wanting big scares, but look closer and you'll see the beginnings of a kind of viewer-participation horror that persists to this day. You know the kind: Audience members howl at the clueless protagonists not to go up that staircase. Or open that door. Or remove that sacred jewel from the skull they just found in that cave. There's a witch's abandoned tomb in the first half-hour of Black Sunday, and that tomb gets explored, poked at, and prodded by a doctor and his assistant. They don't know any better, but we who just got finished watching that witch promise to avenge her death (an opening scene involving a spiked mask that surely pushed the boundaries of blood in black-and-white cinema) certainly do.

Peeping Tom (1960, directed by Michael Powell) gets credit for inventing the slasher genre, and rightfully so. It also proudly jumps into the deep end of psychological horror, laying out the deep-seated traumas that made our titular photographer/serial killer who he is today. This is ground that Peeping Tom's 1960 classmate Psycho would till far more notably. Between all the Freud and phallic imagery, though, Peeping Tom is probably most daring for making its killer not just the focal point of the story but also its protagonist. You're complicit in his crimes because you're right there with him.

Reducing horror to a simple tally of scares will always be a limited method of judging its excellence. Taking in the film classics that have lost their ability to jolt us upright can force us to focus on the skeletons beneath (Vincent Price would be so proud!). And if nothing else, they've prepared us well for the next wave of horror films we're going to tackle: the world of cult favorites.