Great Classic Films: Halloween, 2nd Ed.
I’ve added five more movies to last year’s list of great classic films for Halloween. So if you’re in the mood for something spooky, horrifying, and old, I’ve got ten fun films for you!
Quick disclosure: I have a wimpy child’s tolerance for scary movies, so none of these are that scary. So if you want to be terrified, this is not the list for you. But if you want to be creeped out by a spooky classic movie, keep reading!
1. Laura (1944)
When this classic film noir begins, the title character (Gene Tierney) has already been murdered in her apartment. A wonderfully ordinary, constantly fidgeting detective named McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned to catch her killer. The suspects include Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson, and that fixture of horror films, Vincent Price. Through flashbacks and solid detective work, McPherson tries to reconstruct Laura’s life and determine who killed her and why. But soon his professional interest in the victim crosses the line from duty to obsession.
I won’t give spoilers, but this is a must-watch murder mystery. Creepy, oddly funny, and haunting, with a tremendous cast directed by a master of the genre, Otto Preminger.
Here’s the trailer, and you can buy this movie here. Fun fact: David Raksin composed the film’s score, including the song “Laura,” which would go on to become a jazz standard. Also, this film is available to stream on Netflix now!
2. Rebecca (1940)
Not all of the films on my list have girls’ names, I promise. This movie was adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, and stars Joan Fontaine as the shy, self-conscious girl swept away by wealthy, sophisticated widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). All is flowers and romance until Fontaine (who never gets a name in the film and is referred to as the second Mrs. de Winter– creepy!) and Maxim return to Manderley, his ancestral home, to start their new life together.
Maxim still seems haunted by the death of his first wife, Rebecca, and the house and its staff, led by terrifying Judith Anderson, are unwilling to welcome the new wife. Fontaine is so unlike the confident, vivacious, perfect Rebecca she keeps hearing about, and although she struggles to adapt to her new role, something always goes wrong.
It’s a creep fest: there’s nothing like a distant, angry husband, an obsessive, demented housekeeper, a monstrous Gothic mansion, a ghostly presence, and dark, swirling waves to give one chills. Plus, Rebecca was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Here’s the trailer, and you can buy this great movie here! Fun fact: Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film and his only movie to win Best Picture. You can find my full review of the movie here.
3. The Birds (1963)
Continuing with Hitchcock, here is a genuine horror movie that will change the way you look at flocks of birds soaring in the sky or perched on telephone lines…
Like Rebecca, The Birds is based on one of Daphne du Maurier’s works; this film was inspired by a 1952 short story called “The Birds.” The movie stars Tippi Hedren in her film debut with Rod Taylor and Jessica Tandy. When Hedren arrives in the beautiful coastal town of Bodega Bay, she is immediately attacked by a seagull. Soon, all the other wild birds go terrifyingly crazy, and flocks of crows, sparrows, and assorted other winged creatures attack and even murder the townspeople. Hitchcock’s direction is masterful, and it’s a terrifying, gorgeous, ambiguous film.
Here’s the trailer, and you can buy this movie here. Fun fact: although special effects and fake birds were used for many of the scenes, poor Tippi Hedren was subjected to “attacks” by live birds because Hitchcock wanted the terror to be “real.” For example, the attic scene towards the end of the movie took a week to film with live birds, and Hedren was injured several times.
4. Scarlet Street (1945)
This movie is so strange. There’s something vaguely off and almost cartoonish about it, which only adds to its skewed charm. It concerns henpecked bank employee Chris (Edward G. Robinson) whose only escape from his awful wife and his dull existence is painting. One night, he meets a prostitute (though he doesn’t realize it) named Kitty (Joan Bennett). He quickly falls in love with this lazy femme fatale, and Kitty encourages him because she thinks he is a wealthy painter, not a bank clerk.
Kitty and her boyfriend/pimp, a disturbingly likable, slimy scumbag named Johnny (Dan Duryea) hatch a plan to get as much money as they can out of Chris, who finds himself stealing to meet Kitty’s demands. When Kitty tries to sell one of Chris’ paintings, an influential critic sees it and proclaims it a masterpiece. Kitty claims that she painted it, and soon “Katherine March” is the darling of the art world.
Then things really get crazy: murder, embezzlement, blackmail, returns from the dead, and some of the creepiest voiceover hallucinations I’ve ever heard. It’s a seedy, weirdly funny, slightly campy film noir with some nightmarish twists. Bennett and Duryea make a delightfully awful pair, and Robinson is terrific as a naive nice guy whose life goes horribly wrong.
Here’s a clip, and you can buy this movie here. Fun fact: this movie was directed by Fritz Lang, another master of film noir, who’d previously directed all three of his Scarlet Street stars in The Woman in the Window (1944). Another fun fact: this film was considered so immoral and sordid that several cities banned it when it first came out.
5. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
This is such a creepy movie. It stars legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and their longstanding rivalry helped drive publicity for the film. Davis plays Baby Jane, a mostly insane former child-star who cannot quite move past her glory days, and Crawford is her long-suffering sister who enjoyed a successful film career of her own as an adult before being crippled in a car accident.
Davis looks after the nearly helpless Crawford in their decrepit mansion, but Baby Jane has lost touch with reality and begins torturing her sister in various horrible ways. And that’s just the beginning of the madness, murder, and deep dysfunction between the sisters. It’s a true “psychological thriller” that has become a cult favorite.
6. Gaslight (1944)
This George Cukor directed film is a sinister, suspenseful mystery set in foggy Victorian London. It stars Ingrid Bergman as Paula, a young woman whose aunt and guardian was a world famous singer who was brutally murdered in their London home. About ten years after the murder, which has remained unsolved, Paula meets Gregory, a charming pianist (Charles Boyer), and before we know it, the pair are married and moving into the aunt’s house in London. (Seventeen-year-old Angela Lansbury makes her film debut as their saucy Cockney housemaid, so look out for that.)
But healthy, vibrant, deeply-in-love Paula suddenly begins to weaken. Her memory seems faulty, she can’t account for some of her actions, and soon she has trouble even leaving the claustrophobic house. Paula is losing her mind, and Gregory is losing his patience. A police detective (Joseph Cotten) takes an interest in these strange goings-on, and realizes that something is terribly wrong. And that’s where I leave you.
Here’s the trailer, and you can buy this classic here. Fun fact: this psychological thriller-mystery helped popularize the term “gas lighting” to mean a type of psychological abuse where one manipulates another person into doubting his own reality and sanity. You can read my full review of this film here.
7. Psycho (1960)
This is a legitimately scary film. It’s such a part of our consciousness now that even if you haven’t seen it, you probably know what happens. But it is still worth watching, because Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, and Bernard Herrmann’s chilling score are so brilliant. Marion (Janet Leigh) steals a great deal of money from her employer and flees. She makes the terrible decision to stop at Bates Motel, where she meets the gentle proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). And very bad things happen.
Psycho is a classic horror film for a reason, and it still manages to terrify even if you know what’s coming. Plus, it’s Hitchcock, so it’s an incredibly dense movie full of symbolism, foreshadowing, psychological elements, and layers and layers of meaning.
8. The Dark Mirror (1946)
If a campy, noir-style thriller is more to your taste, you can’t go wrong with The Dark Mirror. It’s another crazy-sister movie, but this time it’s identical twins. One is good, and one is evil, and both women are played by Olivia de Havilland.
A doctor is murdered and witnesses claim to have seen one of the twins arguing with him shortly before his death. A psychiatrist who specializes in twins (Lew Ayres) is called to help the police determine which woman might have been involved. Naturally, the psychiatrist falls in love with one of the twins…but will he be able to figure out which one is a murderous sociopath and which one is just an innocent, gullible fool? The tagline sums it up quite nicely: “Twins! One who loves…and one who loves to kill!”
This is a fun film, especially because of the tricks used to make de Havilland appear as two different people. It’s spooky but not too scary, and retains a great noir feel, thanks to the direction by Robert Siodmak and the script by Nunnally Johnson.
9. Vertigo (1958)
Back to Hitchcock! No one did creepy suspense better. Vertigo tells the story of ex-detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) who is stricken with a debilitating fear of heights after an incident when a fellow cop fell from a rooftop to his death.
Scottie retired from the force, but an old friend hires him to shadow his wife Madeleine. She seems obsessed with an ancestor who committed suicide, and her husband is afraid she is being possessed. Scottie follows the beautiful blonde (Kim Novak) around San Francisco, and eventually the pair fall in love. I won’t spoil the fantastic twists of the plot, but this expertly crafted tale of suicide, murder, obsession, and a diabolical scheme make this one of Hitchcock’s most revered films. It’s a must watch.
Here’s the trailer, and you can buy this classic here. Fun fact: Hitchcock wanted James Stewart to play Scottie from the very beginning, and he originally cast Vera Miles as Madeleine. But Miles became pregnant and bowed out of the film, so Kim Novak got the role, instead.
10. The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
This is a little known thriller starring two icons, Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck. Bogart is a painter named Geoffrey Carroll who falls in love with Sally (Stanwyck) when they meet on vacation in Scotland. But Geoffrey is already married, so they sadly part ways.
But soon after he returns from Scotland, Geoffrey’s wife dies from an illness. After the appropriate time has passed, Geoffrey and Sally get married. It’s all going well, but eventually Geoffrey’s career falters and he seems more interested in a pretty American socialite (Alexis Smith) than his wife. No spoilers, but things get creepy fast. (Think Gaslight, Rebecca, and Suspicion.)
This is not a timeless classic and was originally slated as a B-film, but it’s enjoyable to watch these two legends together, especially in roles that are so different from their famous personas.
Here’s the trailer, and you can buy this movie here. Fun fact: Humphrey Bogart married Lauren Bacall during the production of this film, and shooting was briefly suspended so the pair could go on their honeymoon.
Bonus: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
If you want something a little more German/silent/Expressionist, then consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Roger Ebert called this movie the first real horror film, and it’s definitely an otherworldly nightmare.
A carnival comes to town with Dr. Caligari and his sleep-walking, hypnotically controlled servant Cesare who lives in a cabinet/coffin. Hence the title.
Strange murders and abductions rock the little village, the asylum comes into play, and it all takes place in a world of Expressionist landscapes and tilted, abstract sets.
This movie is a strange dream of twists and turns and flashbacks and flash forwards in a distorted world. It remains extraordinary, unequalled, and very creepy almost a century after it was made.