As you can probably guess from my Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta column, I’m a fan of science fiction and horror across the ages. This is not only in written form but in film and television as well. I thought I’d tap that knowledge to bring you some great old school horror films to help pass the time until Halloween. The best thing is that all these films are now in the public domain, meaning you can watch them for free at the links provided, though they are still sold for rent on many sites like Amazon and YouTube because capitalism gotta capitalism.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
This is not only my favorite vintage sci-fi/horror film, it’s my favorite movie of all time. The acting and tone are spot on to capture Jack Finney’s 1954 novel of the consuming fear of communism, and the film launched an iconic sci-fi/horror subgenre that persists through the constant remakes (1978’s is a classic) through modern interpretations like The World’s End (2013). Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells the story of a family doctor (Kevin McCarthy) returning from a work conference to his home of Santa Mira, where his patients are beginning to feel that their loved ones “are not their loved ones.” Paranoia and tension ramp up in a slow and satisfying way straight to the climax. (Fun fact, Santa Mira is a fictional town featured in many disparate works of science fiction and horror, likely all paying homage to this film/book.)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
A horror cinema icon, House on Haunted Hill created the trope of the wealth eccentric paying people to spend one night in a haunted house – if they can survive. Staring the incomparable Vincent Price, this is a genuinely fun and scary film up to the very end. Fun fact, this is the first horror film Casandra Peterson ever watched, and it started her lifelong love of horror, ultimately leading her to create her persona Elvira.
For extra fun you can catch it on Elvira’s 40th anniversary special on Shudder.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
This is the original adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novella “I Am Legend”, and with a screenplay written by Matheson himself it is very true to the book. Far truer, in fact, than the two remakes, Omega Man (1971) staring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007) staring Will Smith, which I also enjoy to varying degrees. I have a theory that this movie is remade for every generation staring the quintessential blockbuster actor of the time, so of course The Last Man on Earth stars Vincent Price! (Prove my theory wrong.) The book and film’s hybrid vampire/zombie monsters left a permanent impression on the subgenres, and this film is one that may resonate with folks after the 2020 quarantines.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Speaking of zombies, how could I leave out the most influential zombie film of all time? George Romero functionally created the modern zombie in this film, and that alone would make it worth a watch. Lucky for us, this movie fires on all cylinders of plot, acting, and dialog. This is a timeless classic that I still go back to with friends who have never seen it and are subsequently blown away by everything about it. This has also become an iconic film in Black cinema due to the fact that the only person who knows how to handle himself is a Black man with experience living through Jim Crow. There is a lot to unpack in this movie and it is worthy of a rewatch if you haven’t revisited it in some time.
Sure, sure, everyone knows the story of Frankenstein, but if you’ve never watched James Whale’s 1931 classic then you’re missing a key part of horror cinematic history. This one is packed with emotional weight, especially from the timeless performance of Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff took a role that many at the time would feel was silly and played it with an earnestness and compassion that created a cinema classic that will – somewhat sadly – never lose its relevance; there will always be misunderstood “creatures” that the mob will come after. This was one of the first non-children’s movies I showed my son, and I’ll never forget my then eight year old saying, “The real monster is the people from the town!”
I hope you’ll take the time to visit (or revisit) these icons of horror, and you may even spot some tricks of the cinematic trade that originated in these films.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.