(WARNING: This article contains a few minor spoilers for the films mentioned. You've been warned).
The horror genre is perhaps the most diverse and widely varied in all of film and the one with the richest history. From German Expressionism to Hitchcock to the slasher and possession craze of the 80s.
When we English-speakers think of black and white horror films, we think of the obvious classics probably coming from Universal Pictures' iconic library such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolfman (my Universal Pictures 'Essential Monsters' collection is one of my most prized possessions!) or Hitchcock's Psycho.
We cannot however, forget about the importance of films like Nosferatu and Vampyr to come from across the globe. As I often try to do though, I'd like to bring to light for you some other foreign chillers that just may have slipped under your radar:
5. 'Eyes Without A Face'/'Les yeux sans visage' (France, 1960)
By Georges Franju and released in the US in 1962 as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, this hugely twisted tale is of one Dr. Génessier, who is riddled with guilt after he causes the disfigurement of his once beautiful daughter, Christiane following an accident, and the world believes her to be dead. Along with Louise, his accomplice and laboratory assistant, Génessier kidnaps young women and brings them to his mansion, renders them unconscious, and removes their faces in an attempt to graft a new one for Christiane.
That is crazy messed up, right? Well, despite that, #EyesWithoutAFace is also a very pretty film. The imagery is quite bright- taking more advantage of light than dark a lot of the time — it looks like it could have been made much more recently, in fact. Unusually gruesome for the time (heck, maybe even by today's standards), Eyes Without A Face is as beautiful and twisted as a dark fairy-tale.
Alfred Hitchcock said that the audience's imagination will always be far more horrifying than anything that can be filmed and that rings true as we desperately try to picture what Christiane's face looks like under the mask. Not that that damn mask itself isn't already creepy enough! Eyes Without A Face is a film that builds its tension by essentially showing us nothing, and it is effective as all heck.
4. 'Black Sunday'/'La maschera del demonio' (Italy, 1960)
Also released as The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire, this Italian Gothic-horror is considered one of the finest horror films ever made and was the beginning of successful careers for director Mario Bava and star Barbara Steele.
Opening in the year 1630, Steele is Asa Vajda, a witch who is sentenced to death for sorcery by her own brother. She vows before her face is hammered in, to take vengeance and put a curse on her brother's decedents. Two centuries later, her tomb is discovered and we are treated to a wonderful shot of her corpse-y face with spiders and horrible stuff crawling out of every hole. She is resurrected by an accidental drop of blood and sets out to fulfil her promise.
#BlackSunday is one of the most visually impressive films that I've ever come across. Think of everything that you'd want in a Gothic-horror. We've got castles, gargoyles and drool-worthy architecture. There's cemeteries, creepy-crawlies and plenty of shadows in the night. Black Sunday uses atmosphere to build up tension and takes full advantage of light and dark to get under your skin.
Black Sunday was also considered unusually gruesome for the time (particularly the infamous execution scene) and drew a lot of controversy for it. In fact, it was banned in the UK for eight years following its release, and one of its sequences was voted number 40 on a list of the "100 Scariest Movie Moments" by Bravo.
3. 'Hour of the Wolf'/'Vargtimmen' (Sweden, 1968)
A master of characters with personal struggles, Ingmar Bergman’s films frequented dark subjects and disturbing scenes, but #HourOfTheWolf is the only intended horror in the auteur’s extensive library.
Told from the perspective of Alma, Hour of the Wolf follows her account of the events leading up to her husband's disappearance (played by Bergman regulars Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow, respectively). The film is made up of a flashback constructed of his diary entries and Alma's words. Her husband, painter, Johan Borg, seeks rest after a crisis. He's an insomniac who's constantly approached in his daily life by mysterious people, whom he believes to be demons, and Alma is his doting wife always by his side.
The title, The Hour of the Wolf refers to an hour of the night during which most births and deaths occur. The film frequents haunting figures and surrealist imagery as Johan becomes more and more consumed by his visions and the question arises of whether he possesses his demons or they ultimately possess him. A standout scene takes place in a Dracula-like mansion full of mysterious people having dinner, with Johan and Alma sitting awkwardly as the layers of conversation and crossover chit-chat gets louder and louder. Not any different to any of my large family gatherings, really.
Hour of the Wolf is the first of an unofficial trilogy followed by Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969) with all three exploring the"thread of violence intruding on ordinary lives," as Author, Jerry Vermilye wrote. Hour of the Wolf is essential viewing for any fan of the genre or of Bergman's films in general.
2. 'Onibaba'/'鬼婆' (Japan, 1964) & 'Kuroneko'/'藪の中の黒猫' (Japan, 1968)
In as a single entry because one feels like an expansion of the other. Both films are by Kaneto Shindo, star Nobuko Otowa, have a similar premise and deal with similar themes. Both are based on folktales and both take place during a civil war. Both follow a mother and daughter-in-law whose son and husband respectively went off to fight, leaving them to fend for themselves. And in both films they kill samurai. One is a survival story and the other is a supernatural revenge story, but at both of their cores, they are stories of morality.
The original title literally translating to "Demon Hag", #Onibaba's more obvious scares don’t really start until about half way through, but what Onibaba does succeed in throughout, however, is atmosphere. The rustling of the tall grass that surrounds the huts that the characters live in is constant, and the sounds of nature are continuous. Much like the original Tomb Raider on PlayStation 1, Shindo does a fantastic job of giving the feel of isolation as we follow only four characters in a near-single location set up. We follow this mother and daughter-in-law as they kill samurai and sell their goods in order to obtain food, while also fighting with their natural human desires — sinful as they may be.
What Onibaba may lack in frequent chills, #Kuroneko (it's original title literally translates to A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove) makes up for with ghostly encounters, voices that come from nowhere and grisly cat-like murders as we watch them prance and float around with theatre-like gracefulness. Kuroneko's mother and daughter-in-law are raped and killed by samurai, and come back as ghosts to take their vengeance. Taking place mostly at night and the black and white contrast upped to max, Kuroneko definitely wins in the visuals department.
Both films boast atmospheric scores and also drew some controversy at the time for their depictions of sex and nudity. I find Onibaba to be the better of the two because of its more realistic depiction of human morality and it's psychological elements. That's down to personal opinion though, and both are definitely worth the watch.
1. 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'/'Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari' (Germany, 1920)
Where, oh where would we be without German Expressionism? While Hollywood was making lovable stars out of Clara Bow in It (1927) and femme fatales of Theda Bara in A Fool There Was (1915), Germany were creating classics like Nosferatu and revolutionizing the horror genre. #TheCabinetOfDrCaligari is a silent film that tells the story of one Dr. Caligari, a mysterious hypnotist who seemingly controls a somnambulist, Cesarem, played by Conrad Veidt (perhaps best known for 1928's The Man Who Laughs, the role that inspired the Joker).
You’re probably wondering if a film from almost 100 years ago can actually still be even remotely scary today. Abso-freaking-lutely. Aside from the fact that films of this time naturally appear quite ghostly, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari uses highly stylized visuals to create very vivid dream-like environments and the character makeup definitely helps the creep factor. The look is bizarre, chaotic and unhinged. Exaggerated visuals were fairly common in films of German Expressionism but within the context of this film in particular, it is especially effective. Paired with a truly chilling performance by highly popular actor of the time, Werner Krauss, and a haunting score (which can vary from version to version), The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari stands the test of time as much as a silent film can.
It was cited by Roger Ebert to be "the first true horror film", and critic Danny Peary called it cinema's first cult film and a precursor for arthouse films. Dr. Calligari may have also had cinema's first great twist ending. You won't see it coming!
Honorable Mention: 'The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch'/'蛇娘と白髪魔' (Japan, 1968)
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa, this little creeper is based on a manga by Kazuo Umezu. #TheSnakeGirlAndTheSilverHairedWitch was apparently marketed as a children's horror movie. Those kids in Japan must be pretty tough! Filled with sadistic murders and nightmarish hallucinations as a young girl discovers that her mysterious older sister is half snake, Snake Girl is cheaply made, often quite humorous and very entertaining.
Bonus: 'Spider Baby' (USA, 1967)
Any chance to mention Jack Hill's little gem. Recognized as a comedy-horror, #SpiderBaby took only 12 days to shoot and follows a dysfunctional family of three orphaned siblings who suffer from "Merrye Syndrome", a genetic condition that causes them to regress mentally, socially and physically. Now considered a cult favourite, Spider Baby is just as charming as it is creepy.
What are some of your favourite classic international horror movies?