One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 105
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
In celebration of Halloween, Reel Streaming is turning back the clock to relive the glorious black-and-white horror films of yesteryear.
But we’re not taking a trip back to the years when the film industry was only making black-and-white movies. The technology for producing color motion picture film—crude but, yes, color—actually dates back to the early years of the 20th century. But aside from some specialty productions (The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, anyone?), color film didn’t come into general, wide use until the late Forties.
This time out, I want to avoid a list of the usual black-and-white silent suspects (Robert Weine’s 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, Rupert Julian’s 1925 The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, and so on). There are also dozens of possibilities from the Thirties through the Fifties that could rightfully be awarded a spot on this list (like the entire Universal Monster Cycle from those years, Erle Kenton’s 1932 Island of Lost Souls, Edgar Ulmer’s 1935 The Black Cat, Jacques Tournier’s 1942 Cat People, and all the rest). Well, I’m going to push them to the side, too.
What I’m thinking here is that filmmakers who were directing horror films that they chose to shoot in black-and-white did so because they were trying to create a certain kind of atmosphere and tone, or attempting to convey a thematic idea.
The simple fact is that black-and-white cinematography does not represent the way people see the world (I’m talking literally, not metaphorically), so its very appearance adds a wonderful unrealness to a film’s content. It stands to reason, then, that the emotional resonance that accompanies a horror or thriller film in black-and-white would be heightened or, at the very least, greatly affected.
But I’m explaining too much here, when it’s the films themselves that should do the talking, flickering and frightening.
Here are ten outstanding black-and-white fright flicks, all shot that way during the color era because that’s the way their directors wanted to shoot them!
It’s worth noting that four of my picks are from 1960, a banner year for black-and-white horror films if there ever was one!
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Directed by James Whale
Alright, I lied. I simply had to include a film from the time when only black-and-white films were being produced. But just one. Considered to be an improvement on his original Frankenstein from 1931, Whale’s follow-up is a first-rate horror-fantasy that is at once gruesome, emotional and haunting. The climactic meeting of Boris Karloff’s monster and his fresh-off-the-electrified-table spouse (Elsa Lanchester) is unforgettable.
The City of the Dead (1960)
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Dripping with cobwebby atmosphere, this low-budget British fright flick concerns the unholy happenings that transpire in a New England village that harbors the spirits of witches burned at the stake there three centuries earlier. So pity the coed who heads up there to work on a thesis paper about witchcraft. Featuring horror icon Christopher Lee in a supporting turn, this one was released in the U.S. under the name Horror Hotel.
The Lighthouse (2019)
Directed by Robert Eggers
This ambitious independent effort is as tough to categorize as it is downright creepy. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are 19th century lighthouse keepers on an isolated and mysterious New England island who try to maintain their sanity as hallucinations of mermaids and Proteus-like creatures roll in with the fog and really do a number on them.
Directed by David Lynch
An odd man with a wild haircut on a desolate industrial cityscape tries to live his life with an angry girlfriend-turned-wife and their grossly deformed child. Playing out somewhere between a dream and a nightmare state of consciousness, this unique and uncomfortably surreal horror piece represents the first feature-length effort by writer/director/editor Lynch.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Polanski’s first English language film is a masterful psychological horror piece about a withdrawn, sexually repressed young woman who begins to unravel after she’s left alone in the apartment she shares with her sister. Catherine Deneuve is outstanding as the disturbed Carol and ace cinematographer Gil Taylor’s work has never been better. This one will get under your skin and stick with you for days.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
After all the college film class papers and sitcom punchlines, Hitchcock’s most famous film about a blonde embezzler on the run (Janet Leigh) and a soft-spoken, taxidermy-practicing motel proprietor (Anthony Perkins) who really loves his mother hasn’t lost any of its power. The shower sequence, house on the hill and climactic reveal have become cinematic legend.
Black Sunday (1960)
Directed by Mario Bava
Italian horror master Bava’s directorial debut concerns a witch who is put to death by her brother, and then returns two centuries later to seek revenge upon his descendants. Barbara Steele, one of the original Scream Queens, is tawdry and terrifying in the dual role of the ancient witch and her modern-day reincarnated self. Based on the Nikolai Gogol short story Viy.
The Haunting (1963)
Directed by Robert Wise
This adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House finds Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn invited by a paranormal expert to investigate a supposedly haunted house. Carefully constructed and shot for maximum claustrophobia and unease, it holds up as one of Hollywood’s most enduring haunted house films.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Directed by Georges Franju
In this French shocker, a plastic surgeon is determined to perform a face transplant on his daughter, who has been disfigured in a car accident he was responsible for. Pierre Brasseur is disturbingly effective as the surgeon obsessed with finding victims’ faces to steal. Playing his tragic daughter, Édith Scob has the most evocative eyes to ever grace a horror film.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Directed by Mel Brooks
We started off with a Frankenstein film, right? Well, to keep things balanced, let’s end with one, too, but this time, one with a few laughs. Make that a lot of laughs as we’re talking about Mel Brooks. His send-up of the original Frankenstein films and the whole of Universal Studios’ legendary monster movie cycle of the black-and-white era remains hysterical and unmatched.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.