As long as we’ve had film, we’ve had horror. Georges Méliès was responsible for bringing sci fi and horror to audiences in the 1890s, shown in silence in glorious black and white. With the development of Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Frankenstein, the genre was formed. Due to the popularity of Roger Corman classics and Universal Monsters, horror films were widely appealing and readily available. As a result, the relevance of the black and white basics is undeniable.
Some of our most iconic characters are those monochromatic monsters. We can all agree that not all movies age gracefully, however, there are some that keep their teeth long after their release. Here’s my list of 6 of my favorite black and white films that still hold up, some 50+ years after they hit the screen.
The Thing From Another World (1951)
Scientists and American Air Force officials battle a bloodthirsty alien organism while stranded at an arctic outpost. The story will sound really familiar, and it should. John Carpenter’s The Thing was adapted from the same novella.
There’s a lot of dialogue, but they zip from scene to scene at a quick rate. Forget the long, silent stares or slow, dramatic walks across the room. This scene has places to be, dammit! Speaking of the dialogue, for a group facing an unknown threat, they are super sarcastic.
The script is clever and the actors have a great chemistry to tie the whole thing together. Most importantly, they do not shy away from an action sequence. One scene in particular involves a lot of fire and kerosene. Honestly, I don’t know how they didn’t burn the set down. Overall, The Thing From Another World is surprisingly funny, consistently paced, and very satisfying.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
This French film earned a spot on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments and TIME’s Top 25 Horror Movies. In Les Diaboliques, the wife and extramarital lover of an abusive boarding school headmaster team up to kill him. The chemistry between the two leading ladies is perfect.
The women have a close-knit connection that stems from the knowledge that they’re both subject to the whims of a well-respected brute. That being said, they’re not quite the Thelma and Louise of 50s French cinema. There’s a formal distance that keeps them focused. As a whole, there are some legitimately frightening moments, but the ending is what will stick with you.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a non-stop thriller. There are startling discoveries, creepy effects and chase scenes galore. We follow a dedicated doctor who is a Man! Of! Action! as he is thrown into a frantic mission to stop the invasion of the pod people.
With a run time of only 1hr 20min, it gets right to the meat of the story very quickly. Honestly, you’ll be surprised with how well it keeps up the action, there’s really no room to get bored here. The effects are fantastic; the pods that create the alien impostors are well-made and quite disturbing.
The film has inspired many remakes and references, including an episode of Looney Tunes titled “Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers”. In 1994, it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Now, significance aside, Invasion is just a classic, energetic, and engaging film.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Carnival of Souls is centered on a young organist named Mary who finds herself drawn to an abandoned carnival after she is involved in a car accident. The sound design is super eerie and hauntingly beautiful. The score, composed by Gene Moore, uses an organ to build atmosphere.
It highlights the occupation of our protagonist and creates anxiety where there should be a positive affiliation. The character of John Linden is also very effective in creating discomfort. His slimy persistence to try to win over Mary is, frankly, disgusting.
She struggles between her desire to be left alone and her desperate need to keep someone close to distract her from her terror. Those ghostly faces that plague Mary are far more effective in black and white than they would be in full color. The dizzying scenes that surround the carnival reinforce what we all know; carnivals are creepy as shit.
If you ask anyone about Alfred Hitchcock, chances are, this is the film they’ll know. Psycho is absolutely iconic. It won four Academy Awards and is ranked as one of the greatest films of all time. Not only did it feature the first toilet flush on the silver screen, it also gave us the most memorable shower scene in pop culture history.
Even in black and white, the scene is shocking. We are able to see Hitchcock’s skill as a filmmaker in his use of shadows and lighting. When Mr. Arbogast interviews Norman Bates in the lobby, it’s a wonderful demonstration of how shadows can increase the intensity of a scene of straight dialogue.
The final reveal on the fate of Mrs. Bates uses a swinging overhead lamp to add a dynamic flare to a static shot. As a whole, it’s clever, balanced, and overall just a damn good film.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
An undisputed all-time classic, Night of the Living Dead has to be on this list. It spawned sequels, remakes, and brought the zombie movie into popular culture. As a whole, the cultural significance is undeniable, particularly when you note the casting of Duane Jones.
Casting a black actor as the protagonist with an all white cast was virtually unheard of at the time. Earlier films, like White Zombie, showed the creation of the zombie as a result of voodoo. NotLD reinvented the genre by establishing the rules we still follow in modern zombie media.
They are relentless reanimated corpses, they feast on the flesh of the living, and you must destroy the brain to stop them. Of course, they were referred to as “ghouls”, but, we know what’s up. It has rightfully earned its status as a cult classic, and I don’t think anyone can argue with that.