Are there really people who avoid black & white films for no other reason than the lack of color? We sure hope not. When Frank Darabont wanted to release his film The Mist in black & white, studios wouldn’t even discuss it. Darabont also petitioned AMC to run The Walking Dead without color. Not only did they refuse, but years later, AMC showed every season in black & white as if it was some sort of scientific discovery.
Horror fans already know that there is an abundance of classic horror, sans color, that’s still terrifying 50, 70, even 100 years later. We’ve compiled a list of our fifteen favorite black & white fright flicks that are still legit scary. These are selections that every horror fan should see at least once. We could have easily done fifteen more, so try not to be too sad if your fave didn’t make our list.
James Whitmore was such a prolific and decorated star, it’s hard to believe that he ever appeared in a movie about giant ants. But he totally did. Them! is also the movie that got James Arness cast on Gunsmoke. But that’s not why it did so well at the box office. Them! combined current societal woes like science run amok, distrust of the government, and disaster preparedness.
Gramps Johnson, a local store owner, is killed under mysterious circumstances. While investigating, the police come upon a local drunk who had seen giant ants eating sugar from an overturned train. Watch for local cops to tell him that they totally believe him—then turn right around and tell everyone else that he’s a raving loon. It’s kind of upsetting, actually. When two small boys are taken by the ants, the cops get serious about finding a solution. Enter scientists, to help. Also keep an eye out for martial law to be declared in Los Angeles. Can you even imagine?
Them! holds up as being reasonably truthful and pretty dang scary. No, the giant ant puppets don’t compare to modern special effects, but the institutional blundering in the face of insect-based disaster will leave you feeling uneasy.
There have been so many film versions of Mary Shelly’s novel, but we speak here of the 1931 movie by James Whale. This is the second film adaptation, the first being a 16-minute short from 1910. Boris Karloff stars as the Monster in Whale’s version, becoming immediately iconic in the role. Bringing up this movie today is likely to inspire some wag to explain that “Frankenstein” is the doctor, not the monster. Of course, the doctor IS the monster, which is easy to discern if you read the book.
It’s probably natural for a doctor to want to uncover the secrets of life and death. We all probably have at least one person in our life that we wish could live forever (well, hopefully). But the body of a murderer stuffed with an abnormal brain? That's not exactly what anyone is looking for when they choose to defy the gods. Watching Frankenstein will make you feel angry with the doctor, frustrated with the parents of that tiny girl, frightened for Elizabeth, and terribly sad for the monster—who continues to have a bad time despite being the only one who had no choice in the matter.
13 Nosferatu / Dracula
Since both of these movies are based loosely on the same book, we’re making them a single entry. Think back, if you will, to a time when vampires were bad guys. Old-school vampires weren’t sexy. They looked like Bela Lugosi for crying out loud! They used hypnosis to beguile comely young women in white nighties, ladies who would have been horrified to discover that they had succumbed to a blood-sucking demon spawn. Vampires could also shape shift into bats, wolves, rats, and other animals you’d be unlikely to invite into your bed.
Nosferatu is based directly (and illegally) on Stoker’s novel; it's a moody epic that falls under the heading of German Expressionism—not unlike say, The Man Who Laughs. Dracula was based on the stage play, so it's more removed from the novel. Both movies were made before the Hayes Code, which means they were under no obligation to have the good guys win. Still, it doesn’t end well for either of these '30s era creatures of the night. Both of these vampire classics are spooky, suspenseful, and well worth a watch.
12 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
If you only know this story from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, you might think that Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is about a guy who drinks a potion that turns him into a crazed, bug-eyed murderer for a few minutes. But there is far more to this story than that.
The 1931 movie was based on a novel by the same guy who wrote kid’s stories like Treasure Island: Robert Lewis B. Stevenson. This black & white masterpiece we reference here is the 6th film adaptation of the book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and stars Frederick March. Though March won his first Oscar for the role, you’ll sometimes hear people say that Spencer Tracy was better. Henry Jekyll is a legendary nice guy who is unnerved by his stubborn belief that the capacity for boundless good and boundless evil lies within all of us. That’s already pretty heavy—and debatable. His experiments result in a serum that releases his baser impulses. Hyde’s treatment of a local prostitute was highly graphic and disturbing in its day. Despite being 85 years old, this film holds up incredibly well. It’s damn scary and makes excellent use of Bach’s "Toccata and Fugue".
11 Phantom of the Opera
Is it really possible for a silent movie about the opera to be effective, let alone scary? Yes. When Lon Chaney is involved, you can bet that you’ll be left somewhere between unnerved and terrified. The 1925 Phantom of the Opera is a moody film with a killer score and an epic sensibility. Better still, it’s one of the earliest movies that teaches us to always be mindful of “old wives tales” and unproven legends. Chances are, the people who “invent” crazy stories about operatic phantoms and kidnapped sopranos probably know of whence they speak.
In addition to Lon Chaney, this Phantom also features Mary Philbin (The Man Who Laughs) and Norman Kerry as the Vicompte. Like most of his roles, Lon Chaney was allowed to design his own makeup for the role of the Phantom. It became instantly iconic, though the film itself went through many more edits and changes over the years. If you can find a copy with the original score and the added footage, that’s the way to go. But honestly, there’s not a bad version of this movie in existence. You owe it to yourself to give it a considered watch.
10 13 Ghosts
Even though William Castle was a huge film mogul in his day, these days, people are more aware of the remake of 13 Ghosts. Shame, that. This movie is really quite creepy, even if it doesn’t contain that invented (but admittedly unnerving) black zodiac nonsense of the remake. A poor family inherits a house and is completely stoked to go live there. But wait! It’s haunted with roughly one dozen archetypal ghosts. But wait again, because there’s tons of money buried in the house! You just need to get past the ghosts…which you can if you have the special ghost-viewing goggles.
Audience members back in the day also had a choice to wear colored cellophane glasses to see the ghosts. Castle was a genius marketer that way. In addition to being truly startling, unnerving, and frightening, 13 Ghosts also boasts a creepy appearance from Margaret Hamilton (whom they hint at being a witch—hilarious!), and a lovely teenage girl named Medea. Who in the world names their daughter Medea? Will the impoverished family find their great uncle’s money, or will the ghosts get them first? As they say on the internets—the answer may surprise you!
9 House on Haunted Hill
In all honesty, this entire list of awesomely scary black & white horror movies could have been nothing but films involving Vincent Price. He’s just that good. The iconic House on Haunted Hill brings together a group of people who barely know each other, puts them in a purportedly haunted house, then hands each of them a .38 pistol. What could possibly go wrong, right?
Before long, we learn nasty details about the guests, their hosts, and the history of the house itself. There will be characters you come to loathe, and they may not be the ones you loathed initially. This movie also has tons of scares, liars, suspense, double-crosses, and a climactic breaking of the fourth wall.
House on Haunted Hill is a classic for a reason. It’s also a great example of an old, black & white movie that holds up incredibly well. There was a remake made of this film in 1999, and even a sequel to the remake. Both are horrible and should be avoided at all costs.
8 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Silent films from the '20s don’t get the play that they should. This is even more true when you’re talking about German expressionist cinema. If anything, these films should be more widely seen, given how well they hold up today. Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a 1920 film about an evil hypnotist using a sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt of The Man Who Laughs) to kill people at his behest. Thematically similar to the more realism-based White Zombie, this film has a unique visual style that is part comic-book, part stage play, and part hideous nightmare. Modern film fans sometimes confuse this one with Cabinet of Caligari, a 1960 reboot/sequel written by Robert Bloch. Despite the involvement of some world-class talent, the 1960 film doesn’t approach the greatness of the original.
The original Cabinet of Dr Caligari can be seen for free online, or even downloaded legally. Roger Ebert called it the “original horror movie.” That’s an arguable point, but even if it’s not the first, it’s a spectacular watch, and one every serious film fan should see.
7 The Innocents
Based on Henry James' excellent novella Turn of the Screw, the 1961 film The Innocents is still terrifying today. Honest. Deborah Kerr is Ms. Giddens, hired on to be the governess of two children with disinterested parents. The boy, Miles, is supposed to be away at school. The girl, Flora, seems moody and withdrawn until she her brother comes home, having been expelled. Little Miles seems like a sweet child, if weirdly flirty beyond his years.
As time passes, Ms. Giddens begins to wonder what’s up with these weird children, and how much truth there is to the rumors of ghosts around the sprawling estate. The Innocents is an engrossing film that honestly will keep you on the edge of your seat. Turn the lights out, pop some corn and let yourself get carried away with this tale of murder, suicide, hauntings, and paranoia. Great performances, spooky scenery, and a slow burning plot makes this a truly frightening film that holds up despite being over 55 years old.
6 Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The ‘50s were a booming time for sci-fi. Between the communist menace, the threat of nuclear war, and atomic fallout scares, there was a whole lot for the sci-fi genre to predict, lambaste, or satirize. While Them! and the Godzilla movies dealt with some of the consequences of radioactive fallout, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a commentary on McCarthyism. Were there communists lurking secretly in your town, your neighborhood, your own home?!? Probably not. But why let that stop you from becoming really, super paranoid and suspecting everyone you know—your mom, your husband, even your kid’s favorite teacher?
This movie is the first adaptation of the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. It stars greats like Kevin McCarthy (Death of a Salesman, UHF) , Dana Wynter (mostly westerns and TV), and Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family). In fairness, we’ll mention that the 1978 remake of this movie (which stars Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, and Veronica Cartwright) is also excellent. But the original is always the best, and this one contains some truly impressive special effects for the time.
5 Dementia 13
Let’s set the scene. American International Pictures decides that they want to capitalize on Universal’s success with Psycho. They hit up Roger Corman to do it, but he was working on something else. Corman called the soundman from an earlier film of his, one he knew was interested in making a feature. Corman had the soundman—some guy named Francis Ford Coppola— write a screenplay that had tons of murder and could be shot quickly and cheaply.
In 1963, Dementia 13 was released. Its budget was under $50,000 and gave studios exactly what they asked for, something “gothic and psychological.” It also gave them creative camera work, inventive plotting and pacing, and passionate performances by much of the cast. The cast will look awfully familiar to anyone who watches a lot of American International Pictures. Patrick McGee and William Campbell from Young Racers, and Luana Anders from Pit and the Pendulum all make appearancs. Despite being black & white (and the fact that existing copies are a bit on the fuzzy side), Dementia 13 holds up well as a suspenseful, surprising, and very scary watch.
4 The Incredible Shrinking Man
This very scary movie is a wonderful combination of the ‘50s era worry of science run amok, and a terrifying story by the great Richard Matheson. The Incredible Shrinking Man details the story of Scott Carey, a handsome married man who seems to enjoy a regular, happy life. One day at the ocean, he gets sprayed by a weird mist no one can explain. A few months later, he realizes that he’s shrinking. Multiple trips to many doctors yield nothing (except him becoming a tabloid sensation). As he keeps shrinking, the special effects become more wild, and the dangers—even around his own house—become increasingly fear-inducing.
While Scott’s wife is out shopping, Scott, now less than 7 inches tall, is attacked and presumed killed by the family cat. His distraught widow moves out of the home they shared, leaving an increasingly tiny Scott to navigate the castle he was once king of. Scott and his wife are nice people, so watching them suffer such horror is hard enough. But Grant Williams’s spectacular performance and heart-wrenching narration make this film gruesome, terrifying, and profoundly memorable.
3 Night of the Living Dead
Is there anything left to be said about Night of the Living Dead? It’s easily one of the great horror classics of all time, and marks the inception of our modern concept of zombies. Sure, there were voudon zombies before Romero, but they didn’t shamble, or eat human flesh, heck—they weren’t even dead. George Romero, John Russo, Russ and Gary Streiner; these are among those who gave us the zombies we know and love today.
While modern fans may assure you that Dawn of the Dead or even The Walking Dead are better places to get your zombie fix—you gotta give it up for the original. Night of the Living Dead is where many of our standard zombie tropes come from: the fortified farmhouse, the adorable zombie child, infighting among the living, and stupid accidents that cause unnecessary deaths. If you’ve ever shuddered when you heard the line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” you already know that this is the scariest zombie movie ever.
2 Night of the Hunter
Robert Mitchum is easily one of the scariest names in classic cinema—in part thanks to his role in Night of the Hunter. Shelley Winters and Lilian Gish also appear in this classic film that was directed by the highly influential Charles Laughton. Night of the Hunter is a classic for a lot of nerdy film fan reasons like inventive cinematography and a haunting score. What’s it about? A man robs a bank to feed his family, and manages to hide the money before he’s caught and taken away to jail. He tells only his son, Billy, where the money is hidden. The father is hanged for his crimes, and his former cellmate—looking for the money—connives to marry Willa (Winters), the dead robber’s widow. Gross.
Billy knows that Powell, the cellmate now posing as an upstanding minister, is only after the cash. Powell has to become more and more evil in his attempts to get the money that rightfully belongs to those poor kids (or failing that, the bank). With the exception of the little girl who plays Pearl, the cast of Night of the Hunter is incredible, and this is easily one of the most artful horror pictures you’ll ever see.
If you think knowing the twist of Psycho will ruin the movie for you—you’re mostly wrong. Sure, it’s better if you go in cold and get that terrible shock. But even if you know the main bit of trickery, there’s still plenty to fear in Psycho. The original Robert Bloch story is inspired by real-life killer Ed Gein, aka The Mad Butcher, who himself had a mother-inspired weakness for older ladies. Bloch wrote two sequels, Psycho 2 and Psycho House, neither of which became movies. Alfred Hitchcock’s original Psycho is a masterful film, and was followed by three sequels, a remake, and two TV spinoff series, (both called Bates Motel) one of which is about to enter its fifth and final season.
The original Norman Bates is an inspired character, played to perfection by Anthony Perkins. Hitchcock blonde archetypes include Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Lila Crane (Vera Miles), and hunky John Gavin plays Marion’s boyfriend Sam Loomis (for whom Michael Myers’ doctor in Halloween is named). Psycho is a truly scary story told by the master of suspense, one which includes a spectacular cast, terrifying music, and some of the most picturesque and shocking murders you’ll see--in color or in black & white.
We know that this list barely scratches the surface of all the wonderfully scary black & white horror movies out there. Did we miss your fave? Let us know in the comments!
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