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The most iconic horror movies of all time

Goran Blazeski

Horror movies nowadays have lots of advanced special effects, but even without those effects classic old-school horror movies can still leave you with chills, even though some of them were made nearly a century ago.

Early horror movies tapped into our deepest fears of the unknown, combining compelling, unique stories with outstanding character acting.

Here is a list of 10 early horror movies guaranteed to send shivers down your spine.

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was so successful, women in the audience were said to have screamed during the famous scene in which Cesare (Conrad Veidt) is revealed. Photo Credit
The premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was so successful, women in the audience were said to have screamed during the famous scene in which Cesare (Conrad Veidt) is revealed. Photo Credit

Directed by Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or in German “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”, is a German horror film that dates from 1920.

It’s considered to be one of the most influential films of the silent era. Werner Krauss plays the title character, a sinister hypnotist who travels the carnival circuit displaying a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt). In one tiny German town of Holstenwall, a series of murders coincides with Caligari’s visit.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is said to be the first example in the cinema of German Expressionism, a visual style in which not only the characters but the world itself is out of joint. The film was inspiration for many other in future and also for the next one in our list – Nosferatu

2. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

An iconic scene of the shadow of Count Orlok climbing up a staircase. Photo Credit
An iconic scene of the shadow of Count Orlok climbing up a staircase. Photo Credit

Nosferatu is one of the silent-era most influential masterpieces. Directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau back in 1922, it is a German Expressionist horror film. The original German title reads Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. 

The film begins in the Carpathian mountains, where real estate agent Hutter has arrived to close a sale with the reclusive Herr Orlok. Despite the feverish warnings of the local peasants, Hutter journeys to Orlok’s sinister castle. Hutter soon discovers that Orlok is no ordinary mortal.

It’s an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DraculaNosferatu, and made a few name and place changes: Count Dracula became Count Orlock (Max Schreck), Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), Mina Harker became Ellen Hutter (Greta Schroder), and scenes set in England were moved to Bremen, Germany.

This is the first film where the vampire was first imagined to have a deathly vulnerability to sunlight.

3. Frankenstein (1931)

Lobby Card
Lobby Card

The 1931 film of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff playing the “Unnamed Monster” is one of the greatest, or possibly the greatest, horror movie of all time.

Directed by James Whale in 1931, the film is based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. This film then launched the career of unknown actor Boris Karloff.

Frankenstein is a film about a mad, obsessed scientist, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, who creates a monster by taking body parts from dead people. Upon placing a brain inside the head of the monster, Henry, and his assistant Fritz are amazed when the experiment comes to life.

The American film institute named Frankenstein as the 87th greatest movie of all time. The library of Congress selected Frankenstein for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1991.

4. Dracula (1931)

This is the 1931 one sheet movie poster
This is the 1931 one sheet movie poster

Dracula is American Pre-Code vampire-horror film, released in 1931. It was directed by Ted Browning, and stars Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula. The Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi could barely speak English when he was chosen by Universal Pictures to star in Dracula.

Based on Bram Stoker’s titular novel, it is one of the most influential Hollywood pictures of all time. It was the first talking picture based on Stoker’s novel, and it was even more fearsome when you could hear Dracula speaking.

The Dracula myth has been filmed so often, that it has been the subject of more than 30 films. Lugosi’s accent and his stiffness with the English language created one of the most influential of all movie performances

Although many years have passed since Dracula was released, it’s still a terrifying film and possibly the most chilling, genuinely frightening film ever made.

 5. The Mummy (1932)

Film poster for the 1932 film The Mummy
Film poster for the 1932 film The Mummy

It’s a Universal horror classic, and another masterpiece in film history. Based on a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer, it’s another American Pre-Code horror film directed by Karl Freund in 1932.

Brought back to life after nearly 3,700 years, Egyptian high priest Imhotep wreaks havoc upon the members of a British field exposition. While disguised as a contemporary Egyptologist, he falls in love with Zita Johann, whom he recognizes as the incarnation of a priestess who died nearly 40 centuries earlier.

It’s another great performance by Karloff, who is the main character in the film. He stalks out of his winding cloths after 3,700 years of restless sleep, and that is a hideous enough theme to freeze the most callous imagination.

 6. Freaks (1932)

Promotional poster
Promotional poster

Directed and produced by Tod Browning in 1932, Freaks is another American Pre-Code horror film. After he filmed Dracula, Browning’s Freaks became an infamous cult classic.

Director Tod Browning drew on his own experience in the circus for this bizarre black-comic horror-melodrama about a scheming trapeze artist who seduces a midget for his money, and tries to insert herself into the ranks of the circus “freaks”.

Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) feigns love for the dwarf Hans to get his inheritance and begins to systematically poison him. Her cruelty is often painful to watch and leads the film into some truly dark areas.

The film was very disturbing at the time when it was released, and still is today.

7. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, and Ernest Thesiger
Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, and Ernest Thesiger

Filmed in 1935 Bride of Frankenstein is the first sequel to 1931 hit Frankenstein. It’s American sci-fi horror film directed by James Whale, the man who directed the 1931 Frankenstein. 

Dr. Frankenstein is forced to tempt fate once again by creating a suitable mate for his monster.

Boris Karloff is again The Monster in the film, a role he plays better than anyone before or since.

The oddest and most gripping performance is Elsa Lanchester in her uncredited performance as the Bride. In her few minutes on the screen, she creates a character that makes a deep impression on the viewer.

Bride Of Frankenstein displays a delicate balance between black comedy and all-out horror. By many critics, Bride of Frankenstein remains the best of the Frankenstein films.

8. The Raven (1935)

Irene Ware and Bela Lugosi. Photo Credit
Irene Ware and Bela Lugosi. Photo Credit

Inspired by two Edgar Allan Poe classics, The Raven and The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven is American horror film directed by Lew Landers back in 1935.

Both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi star in the film. Bela Lugosi as Dr. Vollin, a talented but deranged surgeon whose grim hobby involves recreating various torture devices from Poe’s stories. Boris Karloff is Bateman, a fugitive who makes the mistake of demanding Vollin’s services to change his appearance and evade the law.

The Raven proved to be so controversial upon its release that it led to a brief ban on horror pictures in the UK.

9. Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy
Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy

Phantom of the Opera is a musical horror film from 1943. It’s the only film in the Universal monster movie Blu-ray collection available in color.

The film is directed by Arthur Lubin and starring  Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, and Claude Rains.

In the cellars of the Paris Opera House lives a disfigured masked man who becomes obsessed with the young singer Christine. He commands the management to give her leading roles, and when they refuse, he exacts a terrible revenge, causing a great chandelier to crash down on the audience.

The first adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s celebrated horror novel was back in 1925, and it was an early success for Universal.

Some critics say that the remake of 1943 suffers from identity crises, but it’s worth mentioning since it was the only film in the Universal monster movie Blu-ray collection available in color and it was one of the Universal’s biggest successes.

10. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Advertising poster for the film Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Advertising poster for the film Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Directed by Jack Arnold, Creature from the Black Lagoon is American  black-and-white 3D monster horror film from the year of 1954. It stars Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, and Whit Bissell.

This film was a sensation, and put the Gillman alongside Count Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and the Mummy in the pantheon of classic Universal Monsters.

The Creature is the greatest monster of a decade filled with monsters.

The story involves the members of a fossil-hunting expedition down a dark tributary of the mist-shrouded Amazon, where they enter the domain of a prehistoric, amphibious “Gill Man” – possibly the last of a species of fanged, clawed humanoids who may have evolved entirely underwater.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a true motion picture masterpiece of the monstrous.

Goran Blazeski

Goran Blazeski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News