Horror flicks have been a cornerstone of Halloween celebration for as long as pictures have been able to move. Cheesy, gory, acclaimed or admonished, there’s a place in our collection for all the movies that rattle your bones and scare your socks off. In celebration of Halloween ’23, here’s 13 20th-century horror classics available for streaming and checkout through the AU library.
Perhaps the most influential work to come out of the German Expressionist cinema movement, this seminal Dracula adaptation set a high bar for horror films over a century ago. An obligatory watch in any decent introductory Film Studies course, Nosferatu is lauded even today for its practical effects and haunting visual style. If this film seems trope-ish to a first-time viewer, odds are it’s because Nosferatu invented those tropes.
This Swedish production has defied genre classification since its controversial release: dubbed a documentary by some, its elaborate reenactments of demonological ritual give Errol Morris a run for his milkshake. Häxan props up the hypothesis that witches and spell-casters throughout history suffered from hysteria, a “disease” with which the budding psychiatric community of the era was concerned. But what more so attracts modern horror-buffs to this film is its imagery: haggardly witches brew potions in smoking cauldrons and fly through the air on broomsticks; demons churn butter as souls decouple from bodies; stop-motion Baphomet breaks a hole in a castle door to taunt an old woman with visions of animals dancing with humans. Häxan was, at the time, the most expensive Scandinavian film ever produced, and its rich set design and vivid imagery hold up to the modern eye. If you aren’t too keen on silent films, Häxan was rereleased in the 1960s under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages featuring narration by Beat author William S. Burroughs and a jazzy score by musician Daniel Humair.
Witchcraft Through The Ages is available for streaming on archive.org.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956
This sci-fi Cold War allegory concerns itself with the horror of the banal by substituting flashy horror effects with extraterrestrial doppelganger “drones” that look like–wait for it–entirely normal people. Despite its economical production quality, Invasion of the Body Snatcher resonated with viewers of the time: its themes of community infiltration and loss of individualism were a potent reminder of McCarthyist anti-communism. If you think collectivism and conformity are scarier subjects than, say, vampirism or witchcraft, then this is the Halloween-night movie for you.
The Blob 1958
Consider this a warning: The Blob may forever taint your feelings towards cherry Jello. In his first lead role, good-guy Steve McQueen is tasked with solving the mystery of a rampant amoebic mass which can and will absorb and digest any innocent civilian in its path. The Blob is unrefutably cheesy and riddled with mediocre special effects, but its shortcomings are made up for by its small-town charm and hilariously American ending: essentially, “dump it somewhere else.” This movie will not leave you with themes to ponder, but it’s cemented its place in the horror canon undoubtedly.
If the horror genre had to be distilled down into a single film, Psycho would be a strong contender. Whereas earlier horror movies focused mostly on inhuman terrors–vampires, aliens, blobs and the like–Hitchcock turned his eye towards human monsters. Though Psycho is far from the first movie to deal with serial murder, Psycho‘s tension, precision, and macabre beauty were a novel sight to mid-century audiences. Hitchcock’s challenging yet alluring renditions of violence and sexuality pushed the boundary in a way that rung through the following decade. As the progenitorial slasher film, any fans of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Meyers should consider this a mandatory watch.
Black Sunday 1960
Originally titled The Mask of Satan, initial Italian audiences likely felt that watching this movie was indeed like staring into the face of the devil. Set in 1630s eastern Europe, Black Sunday features a vampiric witch, cultic rituals, telepathic communication, reincarnation, and, for its time, abundant eroticism. Where this film excels is in its appearance: visually stunning, Black Sunday somehow imbues black and white with more tonality than seems possible. And though beautiful, director Mario Bava didn’t shy away from grotesque subject matter, so gore aficionados ought to enjoy this one.
Black Sunday is available for streaming.
The Wicker Man 1973
If The Wicker Man were released in 2023 rather than 1973, its pagan iconography, eerie atmosphere, punching ending, and excellent color grading could make it pass as an A24 original. In it, a policeman investigates the disappearance of a little girl on a Scottish island and delves into the bizarre culture of the locals. Seasoned with musical numbers of folk tunes, which is rather unusual for a crime/mystery film, The Wicker Man cultivates a unique personality which is adored by its fans. The film has a musical reputation beyond itself, though, as metal bands including Marduk, Iron Maiden, and not-metal band Radiohead have all payed homage to The Wicker Man in their discography. This film is perhaps the truest “cult classic” on this list (no cult pun intended) thanks to its miniscule production budget and delayed acclaim.
Note: there are several different cuts of the movie ranging from 87 to 99 minutes, so do some research and figure out which is best for you. And don’t bother with the 2006 Nicholas Cage remake, which is on a level of awful comparable to The Bye Bye Man.
The Wicker Man is available for DVD checkout.
Young Frankenstein 1974
Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s less-appreciated but still iconic Young Frankenstein (pronounced Fronkensteen) is not only the funniest of these thirteen movies, but perhaps the funniest comedy-horror movie to date. A deeply unserious spoof of the 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the film centers on Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, played by Gene Wilder, the neurosurgeon grandson of infamous Victor Frankenstein. After inheriting the Transylvania estate where his grandfather once worked, he returns to his homeland to confront his destiny. Highlight cast members include Marty Feldman as Igor, a hunchback servant, and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, the solitary castle-keeper. Young Frankenstein calls back to an earlier era in cinema: it’s shot in all black and white for stylistic effect, and goes so far as to reuse the set and props from 1931’s Frankenstein. Any Brooks fan will surely enjoy this film, given its characteristically Brooksian vein of comedy, as will enjoyers of the 1920’s bop Puttin’ On the Ritz, for reasons that will become apparent upon viewing.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show 1975
Okay, I take back what I said about The Wicker Man, because The Rocky Horror Picture Show is definitively the cultiest cult classic on this list. Few other films have spawned a culture of camp so potent, and so long after their initial release. Annual conventions take place across the nation for ritual viewings of Rocky Horror that have been compared to religious events. At heart, a comedy musical, this picture show fuses a plot of reanimation and ufology together with hedonic theatrics and the LGBT underground into an elixir that’s bewitched a subculture almost 50 years in the running. This film sits at the fringes of the horror genre, but in a way that few movies have, its fervid fanbase has elevated it to an object of worship beyond traditional classification. If you’re contemplating Rocky Horror as your Halloween-night flick, accept the possibility that your subsequent Halloweens will become just a facet of a lifetime of Rocky Horror celebration.
In a delirious, surrealist contemplation of fatherhood, David Lynch drags the viewer through a psychosexual nightmare that would put Freud in a cold sweat. Eraserhead is a horror film that will invoke on its detractors and devotees alike an existential angst and hypoxic oppression paramount to what every other film on this list is able to evoke. It’s been praised for its sound design, which has been likened to a “collapsing factory or gigantic dying organism,” and its accompanying dark, dingy, expertly-composed visuals. Far from a traditional horror movie experience, Eraserhead often catches flak for its nonlinearity, perceived shock-value scares, and tendency to perplex its viewers. Whatever you think, its unrivaled uniqueness will make this movie a hard one to forget.
The Thing 1982
John Carpenter’s The Thing is an alien movie, but its similarities to the same-year alien classic E.T. end there. Whereas E.T. is a charming, compassionate, happy-ending family movie that was immediately loved by audiences, The Thing is a bleak, paranoid, at-points repulsive Antarctic tale of terror that deeply offended 80s critics and barely scraped by at the box office. Nevertheless, in its 40-some years after release, The Thing has risen to greatness and come to be considered a must-watch for sci-fi horror fans. Its practical effects hold up quite well, disgusting the modern eye just as well as they did those 80s critics. If you check this one out, prepare yourself for dated hairdos.
Brainwashing, body horror, cable pornography, techno-surrealism. If those buzzwords don’t appeal to you, then I wouldn’t recommend watching Videodrome. Not for the squeamish or weak-of-stomach, this film seems to evade the label of shock-value despite its irrefutably bewildering nature. TV trailers of the movie’s era asserted to viewers that “Videodrome is a bio-electronic addiction . . . Videodrome will shatter your reality,” channeling a cybernetic early-internet aesthetic which almost feels like modern irony. This film is a perfect Halloween-night pick with little chance of leaving you un-grossed out upon completion.
Nosferatu in Venice 1989
Are you a cine-snob who thinks Nosferatu is too pedestrian? Then this Werner Herzog-Klaus Kinski deep cut is for you. Technically a sequel to the 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre, you won’t be missing out by skipping the former. This Venetian hemi-period piece casts the now-disdained Kinski in a role only slightly more evil than the actor himself, and despite its title, has little to do with Nosferatu. It’s a vampire flick that casts aside many of the traditional vampire stereotypes: since Kinski wouldn’t wear fangs, this vampire has normal teeth; he’s immune to daylight; rock music comprises its score. Nosferatu in Venice had an infamously problematic production, and it shows in the final cut. However, if you’re an Aguirre: Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde fan, then this one is worth checking off the list.
Nosferatu in Venice is available for streaming.