Top 10 Horror Movies: 1920s - 1950s

Script written by Telly Vlachakis. They’re creatures of the night; try not to die of fright. Join WatchMojo.com as we count down our picks for the top 10 horror movies of the 1920s-50s. For this list, we’re looking at those foundational cinematic expressions of terror and the macabre. This is a part of a series of videos, spanning the decades of horror cinema from the 1920s to the 2000s. WARNING: Contains mature content. Special thanks to our users Mattyhull1, Jack Redshaw, Criss Oko, Logan Firmage, christian cardoza and Nana Amuah for submitting the idea on our Suggestions Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Script written by Telly Vlachakis.

Top 10 Horror Movies: Pre-1960s


They’re creatures of the night; try not to die of fright. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 horror movies of the 1920s-50s.

For this list, we’re looking at those foundational cinematic expressions of terror and the macabre. This is a part of a series of videos, spanning the decades of horror cinema from the 1920s to the 2000s. And while horror films can easily cross genres, dealing with everything from murder mysteries and thrillers, to aliens and the supernatural, we have omitted straight-up action-adventure flicks like “King Kong” and kaiju movies like “Godzilla.”

#10: “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954)

Following the major success of “It Came From Outer Space,” director Jack Arnold needed to get away from all the aliens invading screens in the early ‘50s. The classic Gill-man makes his first appearance in this golden-oldie creature feature as an ancient monster protecting his habitat. Originally shot in 3-D, the film follows an expedition down the Amazon that’s looking for fossils, but instead they find that the entire previous group had been killed. Back when monster flicks were made on the cheap, this film stood out with its expert makeup effects and genuine thrills.

#9: “House of Wax” (1953)

In the first of many appearances in our series, here Vincent Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod, a man hell-bent on gruesome revenge after his famous Wax Museum is burned to the ground, while he is left for dead. He returns with a new and more macabre museum that looks a little too...real. The biggest horror icon was at the peak of his career here, and he knew exactly how to give the drive-in ‘50s crowd the chills. Also shot in 3-D, this movie was a massive hit for Warner Bros. and Price as well.

#8: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920)

This German Expressionist silent film has been hailed by many as the “first true horror film.” With the use of a creative and influential narrative frame, we witness Dr. Caligari performing his tricks at a carnival, the most striking of which is the somnambulist Cesare that he keeps in his cabinet. Little does the audience know that he sends him out at night – while hypnotized – to kill and kidnap. Immensely influential even almost 100 years later, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” set unprecedented groundwork for the genre, for storytelling, visual techniques, and boasts the earliest use of the surprise twist ending.

#7: “The Wolf Man” (1941)

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night…” This classic Universal Monster movie proves it: anyone can become a monster. After having been bit while defending a girl against what seemed like a wolf, Larry Talbot soon finds himself not only being accused of murder, but also suffering the uncontrollable urges of a werewolf. Horror giants Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi and Claude Rains joined forces to bring the legend of the werewolf to the mainstream, and with it they brought a timeless film that has been scaring generations of fans for years.

#6: “The Fly” (1958)

While many atomic age horror films warned about the destructive nature of nuclear warfare, “The Fly” turned the science inward. Canadian scientist Andre Delambre shouldn’t have been playing God when he turned his matter-transporter on himself. Instead of teleporting himself, he swaps his “atoms” with a fly, and becomes a hideous monster. Less cheesy and more shockingly tragic than its contemporaries, this Vincent Price thrill-ride, which was originally based on a short story, spawned a slew of sequels and remakes, most notably David Cronenberg’s body-horror masterpiece.

#5: “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

Vincent Price is back yet again, this time as an eccentric millionaire who invited a bunch of random people to his castle for a party. Why? He will pay them handsomely if they can spend the whole night there. The catch? The castle is supposed to be haunted. William Castle, the king of gimmicky B-horror flicks, such as the later productions “The Tingler” and “13 Ghosts,” used gimmicks like skeletons that would pop up and fly inside the theater for some “House on Haunted Hill” showings. Just as horror audiences were becoming jaded, this film ushered in a new era of jump scares and bloody thrills.

#4: “Nosferatu” (1922)

Following the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula very loosely, this German Expressionist film is considered one of the earliest representations of a vampire ever put on film. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok was so haunting and disturbing that it caused rumors among the cast and crew that he really was one of the undead. Being a silent film with a silent character only adds to its freakiness. Subtitled “A Symphony of Horror,” it was more than just a film, it was an experience, as filmmakers appeared to be trying to see how much disturbing and macabre imagery the audience could actually handle.

#3: “Frankenstein” (1931)

Although only loosely based on Mary Shelley’s novel, this movie and its plot need no introduction. Known for giving the horror movie world the brilliant Boris Karloff in his first major role, this science-gone-wrong creature feature did everything right, and then some. Fear of the unknown, a terrifying monster, children and women in danger, and moral and ethical dilemmas abound, but what shines through is Karloff’s monster, even under tons of makeup and no dialogue. While “Bride of Frankenstein” is a near-perfect, but less serious, masterpiece, the original is truly iconic.

#2: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956)

When action and western director Don Siegel decided to experiment with sci-fi, he gave us one of the most terrifying visions of extraterrestrial life with this flick. During the man-in-a-cheap-costume days of alien movies, Siegel chose to tap into people’s fear of the unknown and unseen, with alien spores creating pod people, which are duplicate human clones controlled by the aliens. With the threats of nuclear attacks, Communist spies and imminent war on America’s mind, the film works beautifully as it portrays the invasion more like a spreading disease, and less like an alien attack.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
- “The Mummy” (1932)
- “The Thing from Another World” (1951)
- “Them!” (1954)
- “Phantom of the Opera” (1925)
- “The Blob” (1958)
- “Cat People” (1942)

#1: “Dracula” (1931)

The most iconic big screen portrayal of the most iconic villain of all time takes our top spot. “Nosferatu” was taking over the world, and Universal studios decided to adapt the play that already had Bela Lugosi in the lead. With hundreds of Draculas having graced our screens in the last 100 years, people today will still do a Bela Lugosi impression when pretending to be the king of vampires. Although Christopher Lee’s reimagining, starting with 1958’s “Horror of Dracula,” is a close second, Lugosi’s eerie gaze and hypnotizing voice will never be forgotten.

Do you agree with our list? Which horror masterpiece from the ‘20s to the ‘50s do you think is hiding in the dark shadows? For more creepy top 10 lists published daily, make sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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