Tag Archives: Vampyr

Fright Club: Best Horror Movies of the 1930s

We dig deep into the history of horror to pay tribute to some of the true cinematic breakthroughs – films that defined horror and are still imitated and adored today.

5. Dracula (1931)

Oh, Bela. When Lugosi took the screen in 1931, no one was yet tired of Dracula. It was still a literary property only made once into a film, albeit illegally and under a different title by F.W. Murnau. (If you haven’t seen the masterpiece that is Nosferatu, please do.)

Bela, alongside director Tod Browning, got to create the image that would forever define the most mimicked, reworked, revamped – if you will – monster in cinema.

4. The Black Cat (1934)

Rocky Horror owes a tremendous debt to Edgar G. Ulmer’s bizarre horror show. The film – clearly precode – boasts torture, tales of cannibalism, and more than the hint of necromancy.

Plus Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff?! What is not to love? It looks great, as does Karloff, whose lisp is put to the most glorious use. What a weird, weird movie. So good!

3. Vampyr (1932)

The well-groomed if aimless dreamer wanders with what appears to be a fishnet to a secluded little inn. But trouble’s afoot.

And dig those crazy shadows!

The great Carl Theodor Dreyer co-wrote and directed this gorgeous black and white fantasy. The painterly quality of Dreyer’s frames and the bizarre character behavior give the film a surreal atmosphere you can’t shake. His decision to limit dialog to a minimum and craft the movie with traditional silent film gimmicks benefitted the dreamscape atmosphere.

2. Freaks (1932)

Short and sweet, like most of its performers, Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks is one of those movies you will never forget. Populated almost entirely by unusual actors – midgets, amputees, the physically deformed, and an honest to god set of conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) – Freaks makes you wonder whether you should be watching it at all. This, of course, is an underlying tension in most horror films, but with Freaks, it’s right up front. Is what Browning does with the film empathetic or exploitative, or both? And, of course, am I a bad person for watching this film?

Well, that’s not for us to say. We suspect you may be a bad person, perhaps even a serial killer. Or maybe that’s Hope. What we can tell you for sure is that this film is unsettling, and the final, rainy act of vengeance is truly creepy to watch.

1. Frankenstein (1931)/Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale’s brilliant take on Mary Shelley’s novel looked at Frankenstein’s monster and saw the cruelty humanity was capable of committing. For him, the monster was the central and most interesting figure. Unlike Shelley’s antihero, Whale’s creature was utterly sympathetic, an oversized child unable to control himself, making him simultaneously innocent and dangerous.

Barons and aristocracy, the European setting – the film distrusts scientists and public officials as fools unable to reign in their own ambitions no matter the dire consequences.

Four years later, James Whale and Boris Karloff – with tag along make-up man Jack Pierce – returned to Castle Frankenstein for another tale of horror. What makes this one a stronger picture is the dark humor and subversive attitude, mostly animated by Frankenstein’s colleague Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).

The sequel casts off the earnestness of the original, presenting a darker film that’s far funnier, often outrageous for its time, with a fuller story. Karloff again combines tenderness and menace, and Elsa Lanchester becomes the greatest goth goddess of all film history as his Bride.

Fright Club: Best Surreal Horror

Everybody’s first experience with horror is a nightmare – their own bad dreams. Surreal horror manages to recreate the anxiety, confusion and dreamlike quality of those nightmares.

In fact, it’s such fertile ground for horror that there are dozens of excellent possible films to celebrate – beginning with Bunuel and Dali’s 1929 head trip Un Chien Andelou to Bergman’s 1968 film Hour of the Wolf, Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s fantastical 1989 fantasy Tetsuo, the Iron Man to Turkey’s latest foray into the genre, Can Evrenol’s 2015 head trip Baskin. All of these films are required viewing for horror fans, but something had to be set aside.

So, here you have it: our pick of the five best surreal horror films.

5. Vampyr (1932)

The well-groomed Allen Grey (Julian West) is an aimless dreamer preoccupied by tales of the supernatural. He wanders thusly, with what appears to be a fish net, to a secluded little inn. But trouble’s afoot.

And dig those crazy shadows!

Early in Vampyr, Grey receives a package from a weary looking man. The package says, “To be opened upon my death.” It appears that Grey has stumbled into a deadly mystery with nothing to help him puzzle out the details except that needless fish net.

The great Carl Theodor Dreyer co-wrote and directed this gorgeous black and white fantasy. The painterly quality of Dreyer’s frames and the bizarre character behavior give the film a surreal atmosphere you can’t shake. His decision to limit dialog to a minimum and craft the film with traditional silent film gimmicks benefitted the dreamscape atmosphere.

As Grey wanders through this picturesque nightmare realm, the film becomes almost drunk with weirdness. Dreyer captures the gorgeous terror of a dream more perfectly than any other filmmaker, in a movie that is never predictable, always a bit surreal and spooky.


4. Possession (1981)

Speaking of sex and monsters – wait, were we? – have you seen Possession? WTF is going on there?

Andrzej Zulawski – writer/director/Czech – created this wild ride with doppelgangers, private investigators, ominous government (or are they?) agencies, and curious sexual appetites. It’s more precisely fantasy than horror, but it strikes me as David Cronenberg meets David Lynch, which is a pairing we can get behind.

Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna’s (a fearless Isabelle Adjani) relationship boasts an intentional artificiality – a queasying sexuality – that makes it hard to root for either of them as their marriage deteriorates. Anna, it seems, is in love with someone else. Is it the sexually open – really, really open – Heinrich? Is it a bloody, mollusk-like monster? Is Mark boning Anna’s mean friend with a cast on her leg? Does Bob’s kindergarten teacher bear an unreasonable resemblance to Anna? Is anyone caring properly for Bob?

These questions and more go basically unanswered in a deviant, summary-defying, fantastical bit of filmmaking that mocks the idiocy, even insanity of obsession and boasts a handful of weirdly excellent performances. And sex with a bloody mollusk-like monster.

3. Repulsion (1965)

The first of Polanski’s brilliant “apartment trilogy,” Repulsion takes on its protagonist’s point of view. As Carol (an utterly amazing Catherine Deneuve) spirals into a hallucinogenic stupor of violence and paranoia, Polanski wisely decided to occupy that same headspace, rather than observing it as an outsider.

It gives the film its surreal feel, developed partly by the wonderful camera work of Gilbert Taylor, who uses the black and white necessitated by the budget to wondrous, shadowy, menacing effect.

Though the marketing for the film promoted a virgin’s hysteria, close attention to the film suggests something far more sinister beneath Catherine’s breakdown. Is it ironic that Roman Polanski of all people is able to articulate the mental and emotional chasm left by a likely sexual assault? Why yes, yes it is, but God help me, he does it well.

2. Gozu (2003)

If you are looking for genuine lunacy in film, your search should begin and quite possibly end with filmmaker Takashi Miike. His shit is nuts. Truth be told, there are scads of Miike films that could have populated this list because even his tamest, most logical, no-puppetry films are wild rides. So when he starts coloring way outside the lines, expect to be surprised.

This one starts off as a yakuza film – one guy on a mob-style assignment – then descends into absolute madness.

Minami (Yuta Sone) has been ordered to assassinate his feeble-minded yakuza boss Ozaki (Sho Aikawa), but he’s conflicted. Then he loses Ozaki and wanders, in search, into – you might say it was the Twilight Zone, except this place is considerably weirder. There’s a minotaur. An electrified anal soup ladle death scene. Some seriously, seriously weird shit.

Like a walk through somebody’s subconscious, the film is awash in repressed sexual desires of the very most insane and unspeakable. There’s a comical element that’s almost equally unsettling. Gozu is not as violent as many Miike films – it’s violent, don’t be mistaken, but the horror here is more in unseemly behavior and wildly inappropriate imagery. It’s just stuff you can’t unsee.


1. Eraserhead (1977)

There truly is no film quite like David Lynch’s first feature, eh?

Eraserhead defies simple summarization. Easily the most surreal of all Lynch’s films – which is a huge statement – the film follows sad-sack Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) dealing poorly with fatherhood.

The film becomes a nightmare of paternal angst and existential crisis – indeed, it may be impossible to name a film or filmmaker more able to bring a nightmare to life.

It’s also among the finest examples of corporeal horror you will find. The shadowy, grimy b/w photography – partially handled by Lynch’s longtime cinematographer Frederick Elmes – amplifies the dismal stagnation facing Henry.

At the same time, it gives a weird, nostalgic camp factor to the Lady in the Radiator and adds a particularly lurid element to that whole bleeding “chicken” thing.

Plus, the baby. Yikes. Alive with the most disturbing imagery, Eraserhead is impossible to forget.