12. Mystery of the Wax Museum (Michael Curtiz, 1933)
An outsider in the modern lexicon of classic Hollywood directors because he preferred playing within genres rather than blowing up the idea of genre from the ground up, Michael Curtiz was a less transformative filmmaker than, say, Orson Welles, but his films were plenty confrontational and composed in their madness.
This story of a wax museum proprietor who murders his victims so that he can use their bodies for his displays plays, in the broad strokes, like a destitute B movie from the early age of schlock-horror. But the similarities to so many hopelessly inept productions is part and parcel with Curtiz’s swirlingly idiosyncratic, perplexing temper toward horror filmmaking.
Equal parts proto-slasher and tough-talking, catty gutter screwball piece, Mystery of the Wax Museum does not recollect “horror in 1933”, and it seems ever more beguiling today. Certainly, it does not look like any conventional idea of a slasher film, but its themes of personal loss serving as an impetus for unchecked egotistical ambition, as well as the necrotic fixation on dead bodies, are among the cornerstones of the genre.
The lynchpin, outside of Curtiz’s fine framing and under-the-covers air for visual pageantry and on-screen chaos, is the dearly-departed early Hollywood two-strip color technique. This technique, with its dirty, anemic reds and frail, unhealthy greens, makes the film look absolutely withered and aged, perfect for a horror film that is, itself, of a vintage brand. With this color scheme, everything comes alive in off-putting death. It pops, but in the grossest way possible, and what more would you want from a horror film?
11. The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man is by no means the great Jacques Tourneur vehicle, and it may be one of the least special of the Val Lewton RKO horror vehicles in the 1940s, but middling Lewton-Tourneur, maybe the most enticing two-fisted filmmaker ever, is well worthwhile cinema all the same.
It lacks the unearthly glow and deeply impressionistic aura of prowling, beastial worry that defined their two best collaborations, Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, but “not being as good as two of the most startlingly superb horror films ever made” is not exactly a meaningful criticism.
For this film, Tourneur went a little heavy on the plot – not his strength as a director, for his interests were in the tapestry of cosmic visual intoxicants of equal parts romance and horror he favored as a visualist. But his undeniable genius shines through in steamy, sultry moments of clinging otherworldly fervor and impressionistic mystery.
Would that the slasher genre – which borrows rather literally from this film, one of the first films to explore the murder and mayhem of the genre in the strict sense of “person goes on a killing spree” – had borrowed the iconographic, ambidextrous filmmaking on display here. The entire cloth of the 1980s, and the horror genre, would have been a better place.
10. Twitch of the Death Nerve (Mario Bava, 1971)
In addition to having one of the great tongue-rolling, spine-tingling, nerve-slashing film titles of all time, Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve is perhaps the quintessential early work of giallo cinema, and Bava’s most perfect film all-together.
Opening with a markedly dense interpretation of “narrative cohesion”, Twitch sets up the mission statement of any giallo: narrative is best utilized as a ruse, an intentionally difficult descent into the madness of reconfiguring a tale, so as to enhance the discombobulated uncanny and abnormality of the tale. Death Nerve is a deliberately confusing film, but it uses deliberate confusion as an artistic tool to induce worry and anxiety in the audience.
When everything comes together in the film’s cacophony of murderous ploys and perverse sexual tinges, it plays like a logical extension of the old dark house genre where showing and not showing, shadows and spaces, tell a story of a murderous family gathered together to figure out who will attain some fortune, even if the diplomacy involves a hatchet or two.
The argument for horror as pure cinema has been made time and time again, and there are superior examples of it too, but the giallo was always right there subverting the idea of storytelling while it was winding up for a fastball murder that was, and always would be, pure visual craft at its fullest.
9. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)
The earlier we go, the less tangible a film’s connection to the slasher genre proper becomes, but the base essentials have to be covered after all. The Old Dark House has no slashing to speak of, but the central idea of the moody, almost embalmed crypt of a house serving as a closed-casket location for horrors small and wide, is so essential to the slasher genre that this James Whale film deserves the mention as the early culmination of a series of films – Roland’s The Bat and Leni’s The Cat and the Canary among them – that cemented the groundwork for the “group of people terrorized in a small place” roots of a great many slashers.
Whale practically invented the English language horror genre in its modern incarnation by taking the best and darkest of the foreboding Expressionist disquiet and the cinema-as-nightmarish-collage-of-spaces tint of silent cinema and transferring it, only slightly diluted, to works with a greater focus on narrative.
His masterpieces remain Frankenstein and the even more vibrant, tenebrous Bride of Frankenstein, but his haunted house tale, the early The Old Dark House, has been a breeding-ground for great horror masterpieces both minor and major since. It lack the subversive, predatory quality of his more expressive dissents into the macabre, but The Old Dark House has its own dark, comic heart in the dynamite theatricality of the smarmy, fey dialogue and the slippery, even oily percussion of the jazzy performances.
Not to mention, this is Whale we are talking about, giving us shots like the early bit where wonderfully aloof aristocrat Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger , as delectable here as he would be in Bride of Frankenstein), looking like a skeleton and damn proud of it, walks down his mansion stairs as the camera glides toward him like a ghost and fixates on the background geometry of the shadows colliding with the stairway.
Here, or whenever Boris Karloff is on screen in a deeply ego-less performance and the camera is loving him as much as in Frankenstein, we are sure that Whale knows what he’s doing, Frankenstein or not. It is easy to see in The Old Dark House what wonderful theater-of-the-absurd sideshow tendencies fixated Whale, and how wonderfully perverse his spider’s web of transgressive interests would prove to be. Sublime visual wit in this one.
8. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)
Mario Bava is generally credited with inventing the tried-and-true proto-slasher form of the Italian giallo, but it would not be Mario Bava who defined it. That title belongs to another Italian filmmaker with a disturbed heart, a young upstart with a career in writing Westerns (his name is a story credit for Once Upon a Time in the West, although that film is less a story than a state of mind). That inspired artist of the macabre was Dario Argento.
Clearly, his soul wasn’t in writing, and watching the opening moments of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it is easy to see where his true passions flew. A kaleidoscope of jagged, tortured editing, dangerously hyper-active color-coding, and murder set to a background of experimental oddities a mile long, Argento is showing off as a director from the opening. But there’s showing off, and then there’s showing off with style.
For Argento, style was a ballet of ballast and brutality and a disjointed, unflowing narrative that becomes part of the deliberately challenging, psychotic audience-thresher that is the giallo film. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is not Argento’s best feature, nor his second best, but as a work expressing a youth opening the doors of horror filmmaking and diving head-first into the cabinet of curiosities he found within, it is cinematic dynamite.
Plus, be it happy accident or intentional showpiece, it is also the work which takes the genre’s nominal status most to heart; “giallo” is Italian for yellow, but while giallo films shifted from soul-stirring black-and-white to fiery, lustful reds, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a sickly, grisly yellow throughout, and it does wonders for how gross the whole film feels.
All of this, by the way, is filtered through the roving camera and monomaniacally forward-thinking gift for visual storytelling known to Argento’s cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, here just on the verge of changing how we watch movies forever with the fellow 1970 release The Conformist.
7. Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)
If Psycho is the grandparent of the slasher genre, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the parent, Black Christmas is the deranged uncle who shows up for Christmas and leaves with nary a trace of his existence until you go looking for him and discover his dark secrets in the process. Bob Clark’s slice of holiday anti-cheer is probably the clearest single reference point for Halloween and the slasher genre proper.
Released in 1974, it gathers a crew of college girls in a sorority house and sets to murdering them, although like fellow class of 74 alum The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the mayhem here is far more arbitrary and pointless than any slasher film released during the 1980s, and thus more disquieting.
While slasher films in the 80s imbibed in the neo-conservative moralism of the time period, murdering as a tool for the moral elite to lay down the law on teenagers who engaged in sex and drugs, this earlier release doesn’t seek to explain away the darkness or justify it by blaming the victims.
Instead, everything feels arbitrary, almost nihilist, carrying the tone of the unexplainable and the unavoidable. It doesn’t treat murder as a ridiculing exemplar of the superiority of adults to youth, but as a plain, unspoken fact that exists and won’t go away. Clark since went on to spectacularly underachieve, but we’ll always have the harried editing, the pointed atmosphere, and the creepily swaying POV shots of this effort to scare us whenever the holidays have us feeling too good about ourselves.