Monsters and Matinees: Ghostly Terrors, Big Bugs and Universal Friends are Great Intros to Classic Horror

It’s October and everyone wants to watch a horror film.

Here at Monsters and Matinees – where we watch horror movies all year – we understand and are prepared to help out by offering suggestions of films that would be good introductions to classic horror.

Nosferatu (1922) is an easy place to start especially since it returns to movie theaters and screening rooms every October, usually with musical accompaniment that makes it quite an event to see in person.

And there’s a century of horror that follows. So pick your favorite to share with someone. Or try one of the suggestions below. They are listed by topic, and many have familiar titles or names attached which can make it easier to get someone’s interest.

Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1935.
Universal Monster films are a great introduction to classic horror because of their familiarity. Pictured are Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein.

The Universal Monsters

Do you see all the kids with Creature from the Black Lagoon T-shirts and Bride of Frankenstein bags? Take advantage of that interest and introduce them to one of the original Universal Monster films:  Dracula (1931 – and don’t forget the Spanish-language version made at the same time), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), Phantom of the Opera (1943) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

Or start with the entertaining comedy homage Young Frankenstein (1974) and explain how it used the basic story and sets from the 1931 film. Also consider Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) which provides a Universal monster fix and laughs.

This scene from The Haunting with Julie Harris is the one I consider the scariest in classic horror. I won’t spoil what has happened.

Ghostly terror

The Haunting (1963 – not the lame 1999 remake) is the most terrifying film on this list especially if you believe in ghosts and spirits like I do. Robert Wise (yes, he of West Side Story and Sound of Music) directed the taut adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel about a paranormal researcher who brings two female mediums to a 90-year-old haunted mansion called Hill House with a disastrous outcome. You won’t see a ghost in the traditional sense, but you will feel the presence of malevolent spirits through chilling sounds and imagery of a house that’s alive. Never will the static shot of a door be as terrifying as it is here. The film is the stuff of nightmares and I mean that literally as one scene – pictured above – has affected my bedtime habits since I first saw it. (If you’ve watched the film, you know that scene. )

The cinematography is gorgeous in The Uninvited, starring Ruth Hussey and Ray Milland.

On the other end of the spectrum of ghost stories is The Uninvited (1944) a film also set in a haunted house but with a much more poetic and graceful approach. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey are the siblings who buy an old seaside house that is already “occupied.” They meet a young lady who has a strong connection to the house and its inhabitant. It’s a beautiful film in many ways, yet it’s scary and a good mystery yarn, too. The gorgeously atmospheric cinematography is by Charles Lang. The Uninvited is a curl up on the couch with a hot chocolate kind of film.

Giant ants terrorize people from New Mexico to California in Them!,
universally considered the best of the big-bug movies.

Big bugs

This is my favorite horror genre. While we can downplay some horror films because they “couldn’t really happen,” but that’s not true of big bugs since they could be real – right? If you know someone with an aversion or phobia to a particular creature, there’s a big-bug film for that. Many are obvious from their title: The Black Scorpion (1957), The Deadly Mantis (1957), Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) and the greatest of them all Tarantula (1955) directed by the equally great Jack Arnold.

Putting aside my attachment to Tarantula, start with the film that created this genre, the exceptional Them! (1954).  James Arness, James Whitford and Edmund Gwenn lead the charge against giant ants that make their way from New Mexico to Los Angeles. The scene that gave the movie its title remains effective today.

Women in horror films could terrorize as much as the men. The Gorgon, in fact, could turn you to stone with one look.

The ladies

If you thought women in horror were relegated to victims, let me introduce you to Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter (1936, Universal), Allison Hayes as the statuesque terror in Attack of the 50-Ft. Woman (1958), Susan Cabot as the well-meaning researcher gone wrong in Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1959), Barbara Steele as victim and witch in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) and Hammer Films’ The Gorgon (1964) and her power to turn you to stone with a glance.

Bride of Frankenstein should be a given under the great ladies of horror.

Michael Redgrave and friend are terrifying in The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,
a segment in the horror anthology Dead of Night.


If you can’t get someone to agree to watching a full classic horror film, try an anthology. These bite-sized pieces of horror usually had three separate stories and casts that boasted multiple favorite horror actors. You can treat an anthology film like a regular feature and start at the beginning or pick a segment if time or attention is short.

Perhaps the most famous segment in a horror anthology is The Ventriloquist’s Dummy from the greatly admired Dead of Night (1945) in which an increasingly disturbed Michael Redgrave fears his creepy doll has come to life. (Also in Dead of Night is The Haunted Mirror which I find so effective that I have been known to avoid mirrors after watching it.)

Other anthologies include Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, narrated by the disembodied head of Boris Karloff. I recommend the creepy Drop of Water segment that shows us what it looks like to be scared to death.

Tales of Terror (1962) features Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Debra Paget, Richard Matheson and Roger Corman collaborating on tales from Edgar Allan Poe. Do you need to know anything else?

Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart make a handsome couple in House on Haunted Hill – too bad they’re trying to kill each other.

Familiar faces

A good place to start for a classic film newbie is with a familiar face like that of Vincent Price, especially in the easy-to-digest House on Haunted Hill. It is one of the easier classic horror films to see, especially in October. It’s quite entertaining, too, with its mix of horror, cleverness, laughs (some unintentional) and pure showmanship from director William Castle. An underrated facet of the film is the delectable and vicious verbal sparring between Price and his onscreen wife played by Carol Ohmart.

There are so many other Price horror films: The Tingler, an underappreciated gem also from Castle about a creature inside us that grows as we become frightened, the vampire tale The Last Man on Earth (1964), and the campy revenge thriller The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).

Or go for a Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing pairing in one of the three Dracula films they made together for Hammer Films, starting with Dracula (1958, known as Horror of Dracula in the U.S.).

If this acting duo is appealing, Cushing and Lee took on other creatures for Hammer in films such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1955), The Mummy (1959) and the Sherlock Holmes tale Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). For something different, I offer Horror Express (1972) where they are trapped on a train with a shape-shifting prehistoric creature. It has my favorite line from classic horror: “The brain has been drained; the memory removed like chalk on a blackboard.”

The face of the boogeyman as personified by the character of Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween.

The boogeyman

Finally, we can’t introduce people to classic horror without John Carpenter’s influential 1978 Halloween. This film created a genre and has changed the face of horror in the 40-plus years since it was made. The boogeyman has never been portrayed in such a realistic and terrifying way. Just the name Michael Myers sends chills up my arms.

I hope you find something to share from this list of horror films. If you have a favorite not mentioned, send it along. I’m always looking for a new classic horror film to watch.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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5 Responses to Monsters and Matinees: Ghostly Terrors, Big Bugs and Universal Friends are Great Intros to Classic Horror

  1. What about:

    The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari 1920
    Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (Barrymore) 1920
    The Phantom Of The Opera 1925
    Metropolis 1927
    The Cat And The Canary 1927
    The Old Dark House (Karloff) 1932
    The Night Of The Demon 1957
    City Of The Dead 1960
    Rosemary’s Baby 1968
    The Crimson Altar (Karloff/Lee) 1968
    Fear No Evil 1969
    The Wicker Man 1973

    Just to name a few. A lot of the ABC horror films from the 1970s, but are hard to find

  2. Billy Slobin says:

    Some additions…The Raven-Return of the vampire Columbia 1944-Black Cat – The Walking Dead 1936-Return of Dracula 1958-Francis Lederer!-Dracula’s Daughter 1936- House of Frankenstein-House of Dracula-Frankenstein meets The Wolfman-Werewolf of London-Ghost of Frankenstein

    • Toni Ruberto says:

      Thanks Billy – you have some great choices here and I haven’t seen a few of them so I’ve got some watching to do!


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