Frankenstein, Dracula, Jason, Freddy, zombies — we all know them, we all love them, we’ve all been jolted by them, and we’ve all seen them dozens of times. But real terror comes from the unexpected, from being surprised. So here are 10 eerie, chilling, horrifying, and sometimes even amusing pictures you probably haven’t watched for Halloween. All are available on disc or streaming.
The Unknown (1927)
Lon Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” was famous for his macabre makeup and his painful body contortions to play deformed characters. Here he’s Alonzo the Armless, a killer on the lam as a circus performer who only pretends to be armless. His act: He uses his feet to throw knives at his assistant, a young Joan Crawford. Alonzo is in love with her, but since she can’t bear to be touched by a man, Alonzo has his arms amputated. Then she falls for the circus strongman.
The film features murder, a psycho with two thumbs on one hand, a criminal midget, and an excruciatingly terrifying climax where the strongman is about to be torn limb from limb by galloping horses. The unforgettable film was directed by Tod Browning (Dracula).
Johnny Eck, The Half Boy. Prince Randian, The Living Torso. Daisy and Violet Hilton, The Siamese Twins. Elizabeth Green, The Stork Woman. That’s some of the cast, and they are real; “Freaks” comes by its blunt title honestly.
Far from being cruel, the film is a sympathetic look at their circus lives. But when a “normal” woman tries to marry and murder a midget so she can get his money, the gang attack on her by the freaks is so awful that the film was banned in the U.S. and the U.K. for 30 years. Also directed by Tod Browning, the film — now considered a sui generis horror classic — destroyed his career with its initial failure.
Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)
Murder hits home in this film that director Alfred Hitchcock said was his favorite. Hitchcock loved to expose the cracks beneath the placid surface of ordinary life; here, working with Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder, we see what happens when a suave, wealthy serial killer — “The Merry Widow Murderer” — hides out with small-town relatives who think he is just a charming and admirable sophisticate. But then his worshipful niece finds out the truth, her innocent world is overturned, and he tries to kill her. Joseph Cotten is one of the most alluring Hitchcock villains — as usual with Hitchcock, you see the humanity beneath the worst villainy — and Teresa Wright is wonderfully nuanced as the niece who regrets the visit she yearned for.
Arsenic And Old Lace (1944)
This film version of a huge Broadway hit features three serial killers, half a dozen bodies (including one in a window seat), and a madman who buries the bodies in a cellar. Oh, and it’s a comedy.
Jean Adair and Josephine Hull reprise their famed stage roles as kindly old ladies who murder vagrants to put them out of their misery (elderberry wine with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide is their preferred method); their brother, who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt, disposes of the dead as Yellow Fever victims. Cary Grant is the normal nephew who goes berserk when he discovers their doings; Raymond Massey, another nephew, is a fugitive homicidal maniac who arrives at his aunt’s house not knowing that they’re as bad he is. The very dark, extravagantly funny farce was directed by Frank Capra.
The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
When a film begins with the floating head of Lillian Gish telling a Bible story to kids against a starry night sky, you know things will get weird. Robert Mitchum is a serial killer posing as a blood and thunder preacher whom women can’t resist. (His LOVE/HATE knuckle tattoos inspired The Blues Brothers.) He murders rural widow Shelley Winters and then pursues her young children across a Grimm-like countryside with unstoppable ferocity. The only movie directed by Charles Laughton, with a script that James Agee worked on, this is a stylized gem, beautifully photographed and with the feel and logic of a nightmare.
Of course, it badly flopped.
Breakdown was the seventh episode of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents — and was one of the handful of TV episodes that Hitchcock directed himself over the show’s long run. Joseph Cotten is a steely business mogul who unceremoniously fires a longtime employee and mocks the man when he cries. On the drive home, Cotten has a terrible car crash that leaves him completely paralyzed; unfortunately, the police and medical personnel think he’s dead. He isn’t, as he tells us in a voiceover narration filled with slowly mounting hysteria while the emergency doctors get ready to consign him to the morgue. If the idea of being buried alive doesn’t scare you, then nothing does.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)
Alien space pods grow into physical duplicates of the residents of a small California town and replace the original people. But the pod people are emotionally flat, without the wide and deep feelings that make humans human. A simple plot, really, but the themes are arguably complex: is it about soulless Communism? The white-bread conformity of American life in the 1950s? The insidious effects of McCarthyism? The arguments have been going on for nearly 60 years.
What’s indisputable is that the film grabs you and you never forget it. Kevin McCarthy, as the local doctor who discovers the truth, gives one of the definitive horror film performances: no camp, just utter conviction about what is happening and a palpable fear of losing one’s self.
The Invaders (1961)
The 15th episode of the second season of The Twilight Zone, The Invaders is one of the best examples of the legendary series’ distinctive blend of imagination, horror, and heart. Richard Matheson’s script, with minimal dialogue, is about a lone old woman in a primitive country cabin who is menaced by tiny lethal creatures from a spaceship. Agnes Moorehead’s mounting fear and amazing resourcefulness in a seemingly hopeless struggle will make you bite your nails until the provocative conclusion. There is subtext here about how humans behave in space and on Earth, but mainly this is hell of a he-knows-you’re-alone story with a great actress at the center.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Ground zero for the modern evil child/satanic incubus movies, the film was tautly directed by Roman Polanski. A post-Peyton place, pre-Woody-Allen Mia Farrow is a young Manhattan wife who comes to believe that the old couple next door are witches, that her husband has fallen in with them, and that, through them, she has been raped and impregnated by Satan. The New York City setting — Farrow lives in the famous Dakota Apartments — the great location work, and the emotional claustrophobia when Farrow thinks she has no one to help her, give the film a precise and plausible terror you can’t shake off.
Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton’s labor of love that nearly nobody saw is a grand tribute to Hollywood’s real-life cross-dressing bad-movie auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr., the man who enriched us with Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Ed (Johnny Depp) is the embodiment of the American Dream, a chipper optimist who believes that with the right breaks and a lot of determination, he can be the next Orson Welles — despite not having a scintilla of talent. He gets his movies made by recruiting a coterie of showbiz Z-listers as actors, finagling small-time moneymen, and genuinely befriending a “star,” the has-been, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi.
This is a fond, fun look at a grungy 1950s Hollywood, shot in gorgeous horror-style black and white. It features Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, wrestler George “The Animal” Steele, and, unforgettably, Martin Landau, who is the reincarnation of Lugosi.