Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Black and White and Red All Over

by Rosalie Lewis
Classic movies can be just as bloody as modern ones.

OK, I have a confession to make: I’ve spent most of my movie-watching life too scared to watch scary movies. After I saw The Sixth Sense in the theater, I slept with the lights on in my room for a month. When my college roommate dragged me to see The Grudge, I spent most of the movie averting my eyes to the glowing red Exit sign instead of on the screen. When my Stephen Dorff-obsessed cousin brought me to FearDotCom, I “watched” with my hands in front of my face (not the worst choice, in retrospect... that is not a great film). I watched The Crazies on mute with subtitles, because somehow not having to hear the creepy music and noises made me feel safer. For years, the only way I’d watch a horror movie was in the safety of my cousins’ living room, surrounded by other people.

At some point, though, my fear evolved into appreciation. Maybe it was the ten years of working at Disc Replay with some of the biggest horror aficionados you could ever meet; maybe it was just a desire to conquer my own trepidation. But eventually, I gave into the siren song of the scary movie. Still, my tolerance had to be built up slowly. I started with classic films from Alfred Hitchcock, delved into silent spookiness with things like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and fell in love with the Universal Horror monsters. For some reason, older movies -- especially those in black and white -- could be menacing without freaking me out for days on end.

These days, I enjoy sampling horror from all eras and countries and subgenres. Bring me the bloody, the psychological, the effects-laden, the creature feature, the mermaid musical (more on that another time). But I still have a lot of affection for horror movies that can pull off legitimate scares in black and white. The movies below rival anything made in the last ten years when it comes to terror, despair, twists, and gore. Sure, a bit more may be left to the imagination... but have you met your imagination? It’s a dark and twisted place that’s customized to your specific phobias. So honestly, relying on that is probably more terrifying than just spelling it all out on screen.

Let’s do the time warp again, and take a tour of five incredible black and white classics that will leave you shivering.

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932
Watch via: Amazon rental (or take your chances on YouTube)
This mostly silent film from the director of The Passion of Joan of Arc features some of the most gorgeous, ghostly camera work ever. Nothing about it feels quite real, but it seeps into your brain until every shadow and creak seems like a signal from beyond the grave. There’s a ton of gothic, haunting imagery and everything in it feels sinister -- from the lace curtains to the dripping wax candles used to light the creepy house that serves as the backdrop for this story. The plot starts the same as a lot of horror movies: A lone traveler takes refuge for the night at a creepy inn, hears and sees things that would send any reasonable person running for the hills, and decides to stay and see how far down the rabbit hole this thing goes. Dancing shadows, cursed books, dreams of being buried alive... all kinds of fun here. The ending haunts me to this day.

The Body Snatcher
Directed by Robert Wise, 1945
Watch via: Online rental (various) / Criterion Channel
Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff share top billing in this atmospheric tale of a doctor who requires fresh cadavers for his medical students... and doesn’t seem to pay much mind to how these cadavers are acquired. It’s produced by Val Lewton, who had a nice little run at RKO with horror movies like Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and Ghost Ship among others. It looks great -- my favorite scene is one where two men engage in hand-to-hand combat to the death, but instead of seeing them we watch their giant shadows cast upon the wall, with a cat watching and meowing in the foreground. I also enjoyed the songs of a street woman, which are both beautiful and unsettling.

Directed by Henri-Georges Cluzot, 1955
Watch via: Criterion Channel
An abused wife and her husband’s conniving mistress team up to murder him by drowning him in a bathtub. They pack his body into a basket and wrap it up in a carpet, then begin the difficult task of transporting him from the scene of the crime to the pool at the boarding school where they intend to dump him. All of this is bone-chilling on its own, but when the pool is drained for cleaning and the body is nowhere to be found, shit really gets wild. I wouldn’t dream of telling you where it goes from here -- that you gotta see for yourself. Let’s just say your eyes will pop out of your head when you find out what’s going on here.

Eyes Without a Face
Directed by Georges Franju, 1960
Watch via: Amazon/iTunes rental
You’ll never hear that Billy Idol song the same way again. In this French freak-out, a plastic surgeon wants to restore his daughter’s beauty after a car accident disfigures her face. To do this, he lures beautiful women into his vast, remote estate and proceeds to perform Face/Off style surgery on them. It’s graphic and gory and guaranteed to give you the heebie jeebies.

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Directed by Robert Aldrich, 1964
Watch via: Online rental (various)
Did you know Bruce Dern and Bette Davis starred in a movie together? Neither did I, until I watched this marvelous little murderous gem. To be fair, Brucie isn’t on screen for too long -- he gets decapitated and dismembered about seven minutes into the movie, in the middle of a party on a swampy plantation in Louisiana. His lover, Charlotte (Davis), shows up in the ballroom screaming with her dress soaked in blood, and we conclude that she went crazy and killed him.

Flash forward about 40 years, and now Charlotte is a recluse with odd habits and no friends, save for her loyal housekeeper (the inimitable Agnes Moorehead). Her beloved plantation is scheduled for demolition thanks to a new highway being built, so her long-lost cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) comes to town to help her pack (much to Charlotte’s disdain). The disturbance in routine leads Charlotte to have some extremely off-putting visions/nightmares/hallucinations (or are they), including severed heads rolling downstairs and random body parts lying around and strange tunes emanating from the parlor piano. Is she crazy, or is something more sinister going on?

If you’ve seen and loved Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, you know that Bette Davis is capable of hideous heights in the name of performance; and she is one intense dame in this film. Agnes Moorehead is the secret MVP of this movie, and she got nominated for an Academy Award for it. Plus there are excellent turns from Joseph Cotten and Olivia de Havilland, who tread a fine line between shifty and well-intentioned. This movie does not hold back on the balls-out batshit banana pants content.

So there you have it! What are your favorite black-and-white bloody masterpieces?


  1. Great writing, thank you! I've never seen Vampyr or even heard of The Body Snatcher, I'm gonna seek them out.

    I'd be curious to know what you think about Begotten and Hour Of The Wolf, if you have the time.

    1. Thanks, I hope you enjoy both of those movies, Will!

      I have not seen Begotten or Hour of the Wolf (yet) but Wolf is on my 2019 October watchlist. I will add Begotten to the list as well! Thanks for the recommendations!

    2. I have to say, Begotten is a slog, although I like it. But Hour Of The Wolf is a worth it bonkers flick I think.

  2. Great list and writeup, Rosalie! I love when people bring focus to some of the old school greats (known and not so known).

    The Mask (1961) is super surreal and chilling (specifically the 3D sequences).

    And for a movie about giant ants, which could be ridiculous, Them! (1954) is so damn creepy. The sound design is a huge part of this, but there are some brutal kills that really terrorized me from a young age.

    1. Thank you Alex! I will add The Mask and Them! to my watchlist. I was really impressed with the effects in The Incredible Shrinking Man, which plays with size and turns every day objects into really scary/menacing things (like the house cat). So I feel like Them might be a good logical progression from that for me.

  3. Definitely an excellent list, Rosalie. The only one I have not seen is Hush, Hush..., but that it due to my own laziness.

    The Body Snatcher is a personal favorite. Karloff's performance is among the best of his career, and I have not forgotten the atmospheric visuals.

    Eyes Without A Face is one of the best "quiet" horror films I have seen. The horror is mostly implied, realized when you think about what is going on in the background of the story. There is such a melancholy air to all that happens in it.

    Among my favorite horror films of all time is Spider Baby. Carnival of Souls is one I have not seen for a long time but loved it when I saw it. I have enjoyed watching a lot of the Italian gothic horror films of the 1960s. Though they have issues, especially with slow pacing, there is much to appreciate about them. I could recommend Castle of Blood (1964) and Terror in the Crypt (1964). There are a couple of versions of Terror in the Crypt to choose from on Prime; one looks better than the other.

    1. Thanks for reading! You NEED to see Hush Hush, I promise it is worth your time.

      I think Body Snatcher is lesser known but you're right, Karloff is excellent in it. The whole tone of that movie just works so well to unsettle the viewer, and the way the doctor keeps trying to justify things to his assistant--it's great.

      I agree about the melancholy of Eyes. The daughter character reminded me a bit of Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, since they both have these disfigurements that require a creepy mask and it seems to impact their own self image and experience of the world.

      I just saw Carnival of Souls in the last few months--it's excellent! I have not seen Spider Baby, Castle of Blood, or Terror in the Crypt but now I definitely will track them down. Thank you for recommending and reading!

  4. Great column, as always. My favorite B&W's: Nosferatu, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Jeckyl & Mr. Hyde (1931), Everything from Universal 1931-1941, I Walked With A Zombie, Shadow of a Doubt, Them!, Psycho, The Haunting (1963), Carnival of Souls, and Night of the Living Dead.

    1. Thanks, JB! Of the ones you listed, I need to see Them!, The Haunting, and some of the Universal sequels & spin-offs. I'm glad to see you mention Dr. Jeckyl & Mr. Hyde--Miriam Hopkins is so great in that movie, and Fredric March is terrifying.