Halloween has inspired some really great stories. Some inspire terror, others probe the depths of psychosis, while still others are good for a laugh. One of the fun things about Halloween movies is they cross genres, so if one isn’t your taste, you can find one that is. For those who do not enjoy gore, guts, or extreme violence but would prefer something more elevated than a family film, dipping into the classics may be a good way to indulge in spooky vibes. The movies on this list helped define their genres and what we think of when we think about Halloween. Some of them even made history. Just because there isn’t color doesn’t mean the story isn’t colorful.
Check out these 10 old-school classic Halloween movies.
Dracula – 1931 (Any classic universal monster movie, really):
Most of what you know about the story of Dracula comes from this adaptation of the story if you’ve never read the book – and honestly, even if you have. Bela Lugaosi’s charismatic presence and distinct accent made the centuries-old vampire come to life in a way no other actor really has before or since. Dwight Frye’s Renfield also set the expectation for how we understand the character in public consciousness.
Dracula is a great story, focusing on the horror of the unknown, the invasive, and the forbidden. It is also pre-code, meaning there were no rules in place for what was appropriate in film, so it is a must for old movie buffs. To this particular part of the list, I will add any of the classic Universal Monster movies, as most of them are stellar, engaging, and hold up well. These include Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Black Cat, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolf Man.
While many people do not care to sit through a silent movie, The Phantom of the Opera holds up in part because of the performance of its star, Lon Chaney. Known as the man of a thousand faces, Chaney was known to morph into whatever was required to translate his character to screen, and he specialized in the grotesque. If you have any interest in seeing the phantom as the embodiment of genius as monstrous, closer to how he was understood prior to the 1980s musical, this film is perfect for indulging that interest. Chaney’s version of the phantom is a menace whose face is truly distorted and skeletal. Even more impressive, Chaney did all the makeup himself. He glued his ears to his head, painted his eye sockets black, and used putty and wire loops to his nose to create a truly gory face. This film is worth watching purely to marvel at the pain and effort that went into making a memorable villain.
The first of several adaptations of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, it is an excellent retelling of the story. From early in the film, director Robert Wise creates a sense of dread and an unsettling atmosphere. Aided by a good score and solid performances from its ensemble cast, the movie touches on themes of anxiety, uncertainty, and being an outsider. Protagonist Eleanor Lance agrees to be part of an experiment to see if Hill House is home to supernatural phenomena. She feels drawn to it and begins to have strange experiences. With a perfectly ambiguous ending, The Haunting of Hill House will inspire conversation long after the credits end.
Morticia and Gomez Adams and Lily and Herman Munster may be traditional Halloween pairings, but there may not be a better pairing than Daphne Du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1940 Hitchcock directed an adaptation of the author’s most famous work Rebecca starring powerhouse Laurence Olivier and the excellent Joan Fontaine.
This tense film follows an unnamed young lady in her marriage to widower Maxim de Winter. Once they return to his mansion – Manderley – the union sours, and the protagonist feels haunted in many ways by the title character, the first Mrs. de Winter – Rebecca. While this story relies less on the supernatural than others on this list, it is still a suspenseful viewing with a famous twist. Some elements from the book were changed, so it is worth diving into both during the spooky season.
Of course, Hitchcock had to be on this list more than once. While many of his suspense-filled movies could fit this list, the one that I distinctly remember giving me the chills was Psycho; some of its characters are profiled off the life of real-life killer Ed Gein, so it is bound to fit in on any list of Halloween movies. The performances are top-notch. The effects, for the most part, hold up. Even if you are familiar with the story and its famous twist-ending, the movie is re-watchable. If you’ve never seen it and are fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with its more celebrated moments, watch it before you look into it online. There are two major moments in the film that shocked original audiences and hold up well. Anthony Perkins is the stand-out actor as Norman Bates. Once you’ve visited the Bates Motel, you may not be able to check out again, so I hope you enjoy your visit.
This film is the youngest on our list but stars James Caan, and Kathy Bates cemented its place on any movie buff’s playlist. Made in 1990, this Rob Reiner film adapted Stephen King’s novel of the same name. Caan plays novelist Paul Sheldon, who winds up in a car accident, nursed by super-fan Annie Wilkes. Most of the film centers around these two characters. Annie tries to control Paul, who desperately tries to find a way out of his predicament. This story explores the depths of obsession and what happens when it becomes all-consuming. Intense, suspenseful, and character-driven, Misery will fill you with horror, even without ghouls and goblins.
The 2005 update of this movie was really bad, relying too much on shock and gore and making the villains deeply uninteresting. Do not let any preconceived notions you may have because of the remake spoil the 1953 version (or the 1940 original, for that matter). The 1953 version can be found in color, and stars Vincent Price as Henry Jarrod, a wax sculptor whose art and mind are twisted by his business partner. Filled with a desire for revenge and perfection, Price’s intellectual Jarrod makes a creepy anchor to a film with a solid mystery and interesting 3-D effects. Fun fact: The director of the film was blind in one eye, so he couldn’t see the 3-D he was making.
While Edgar Allan Poe’s stories have been adapted many times over the years, there was a While Edgar Allan Poe’s stories have been adapted many times over the years, there was a string of versions in the early 1960s, which are a fascinating glimpse into the world of low-budget horror. Many of them, including this one, starred Vincent Price. Six were made in total, and this was the first. To expand the short story into a full-length movie, much was added.
The Pit and the Pendulum features gothic tropes and the Spanish Inquisition (who would have expected that?). It plays on the fears of re-living the past, becoming everything one hates, and fearful obsession. It has fantastic imagery and the kind of enjoyable hammy acting that makes this movie good for laughs and for tensions. All six are worth checking out, though some of them are better for a laugh than a scare.
While author Stephen King may not have enjoyed Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of his novel, everyone else seems to like it. The imagery is iconic, the score menacing, and the performances are unforgettable. While author Stephen King may not have enjoyed Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of his novel, everyone else seems to like it. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you’ve seen clips or spoofs of it. Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and writer who takes his family to the Overlook Hotel to get away, start over after some ‘incidents’, and write a novel. Things unravel quickly as the isolation and perhaps the spirits in the hotel itself begin to eat away at the family’s already weak bonds. Enjoy this quintessential classic, but maybe not with redrum.
What happens when you can’t tell if something is real or imaginary? That question is the overarching horror of this story, retold several times over the years. The 1944 version is considered by many to be the best adaptation.
Gaslight is the story of a young woman named Paula, whose aunt was murdered, and her marriage to Gregory Anton. The film stars Ingrid Bergman as Paula, who does a superb job of showing Paula’s devolvement into uncertainty, with her sanity barely hanging by a thread. Charles Boyer plays the charismatic Gregory Anton. Angela Lansbury even has a small role in one of her earliest on-screen performances. Every night Paula sees the gaslights in her house dim and hears footsteps above her head, though everyone else swears they do not see or hear such things. Is she crazy? Is there something more sinister at work? Tense and well-acted. Gaslight is a must-watch for anyone interested in psychology.
This one is for the bingers out there. The Twilight Zone features monsters and madness, spooks and scares. The show is the brain-child of Rod Serling, who wrote most of the episodes in the original series and narrated them. Check out the original run of the show from 1959-1964. No matter what you’re in the mood for, aliens, killers, or extra-dimensional beings on the wings of planes, The Twilight Zone definitely has multiple episodes to satiate the desire to be spooked, creeped out, and afraid to turn out the light.
What kind of stories put you in the mood for spooky season? Have you seen any of these classics? Did you watch the movies from our other great Halloween movie list? Let us know!