Metal and horror movies are not just an excellent pairing, they are inseparable. Ever since the first metal band in history took their name from an Italian horror film, the fates of both industries have been intertwined. Beginning in the 1970s, most horror films became edgier, more visceral, and, for lack of a better word, more metal. Informed first by the sonic doom of Black Sabbath and the theatrics of Alice Cooper and Kiss, the drive-in horror flick of the 1970s easily transitioned into the splatterpunk spectacle of the 1980s. By that time, thrash had taken hold, and the bond between metal and horror strengthened. Nowadays, metal songs can be found on horror soundtracks, while horror films about metal or starring metal musicians have been filling the straight-to-video ranks since the late ‘80s.
Given this, some diehard headbangers might be wary of watching a classic, pre-1970 horror film. It’s true that these films typically relied more on atmosphere than gore (Herschel Gordon Lewis being a major exception), but one would be remiss if they glossed over this genre entirely. Think of it this way: without Beethoven or Mozart, your favorite shredders wouldn’t know how to craft a stellar solo. Without the classic era of horror (which, for the purposes of this list, will span from 1920 until 1970), your favorite movie monsters and titles wouldn’t exist. Therefore, let’s celebrate 10 classic horror films that should be required viewing for any self-respecting metalhead.
10. Nosferatu (1922)
Perhaps the greatest vampire film of all time, Nosferatu was almost staked before it could be seen. Albin Grau, a film producer and the co-founder of Germany’s Prana Film studio, hit on the idea of making a vampire film back in World War I. While serving with the German army in Serbia, Grau heard a peasant’s story about an undead relative who returned from the grave in order to haunt his former village. Once back home after the war, Grau hired screenwriter Henrik Galeen and director F.W. Murnau to craft an Expressionist take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Another German film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, had already shown that Expressionist horror could work, plus Stoker’s moody vampire tale seemed like a perfect fit for the art movement’s emphasis on the outward representations of inner dread. There was one problem, however. Bram Stoker’s widow would not sell Grau the rights to Dracula.
Despite this, the German crew carried on with the story, but with slight modifications. Instead of London in the 1890s, the vampire count travels from Transylvania to the fictional German port city of Wisborg in the 1830s. Also, Galeen and company saw fit to change the names of the major characters, so Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter, while Count Dracula was turned into Graf Orlok. Ultimately, while the film is barely faithful to Dracula, the performances, as well as Murnau’s brilliant direction and the excellent cinematography by Fritz Arno Wagner and Gunther Krampf, helped to make Nosferatu the iconic film that it is today. For metalheads unfamiliar with the film, pay special attention to Max Schreck, the enigmatic German actor whose rat-faced Orlok is unquestionably cinema’s most frightening bloodsucker.
9. Häxan (1922)
While most horror scholars focus their critical energies on the German film industry during the 1920s, Scandinavia was not far behind in terms of making quality fright films for the silent era. In the same year that Nosferatu was released, Danish filmmaker and screenwriter Benjamin Christensen unleashed upon an unsuspecting public Häxan—a pseudo-documentary about the history of witchcraft in Europe. Based partially on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century treatise on demonology and witchcraft written by two German Catholic monks, Häxan is essentially plotless. While it lacks a comprehensive story outside of a sometimes scientific approach to discussing what may have caused the witchcraft trials in Europe during the Early Modern Period, Häxan does present a shocking series of images that touch on such themes as torture, sexual perversity, and the fabled witches’ sabbath, where practitioners of the black arts would gather during the night in order to sleep with demons and worship Satan. Christensen chose to present these themes bluntly, with nudity and crude depictions of bodily functions being part of the process. The end result is a film full of images that are more brutal than most metal lyrics.
8. Faust (1926)
Seen most recently in a Windhand video, F.W. Murnau’s Faust retells Goethe’s interpretation of the medieval legend of Dr. Faust, the alchemist who makes a deal with the Devil in order to gain eternal youth, an unlimited amount of knowledge, and all the pleasure of this world. Soon enough, Faust signs away his immortal soul just as he begins to fall in love with an innocent girl. Although love triumphs in the end, and thus Mephisto (the Devil) is vanquished by God, Murnau’s film is stunningly sinister. Driven largely by Emil Jannings’s portrayal of Mephisto, Faust is yet another silent film from Germany that trafficked in imaginative visuals that captured the mood of the piece in ways that remain perfect. While Nosferatu is avant-garde and Häxan is nightmarishly gritty, Faust is Wagnerian—robust, Romantic, and roaring.
7. The Black Cat (1934)
Starring horror heavyweights Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat has next to nothing to do with the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name. Set in post-World War I Hungary, The Black Cat is a pitch-black revenge tale about the psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast (played by Lugosi) and the famous architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). During the war, Poelzig was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army and the commander of an isolated fortress. When the Russians attacked, Poelzig abandoned the fort, thereby leaving Werdegast and other soldiers to their fate. Not only did thousands die, but Werdegast had to suffer for decades in a POW camp. Worse still, Poelzig also stole Werdegast’s wife Karen, who eventually died while Werdegast was still in prison.
Now that Werdegast finds himself in Poelzig’s ultra-modern house (which, in an obscene gesture, is built upon the foundations of the fort that Poelzig betrayed), he sets about avenging not only his fellow comrades, but also the memory of his wife. Werdegast and Poelzig’s human chess game is complicated by several gruesome factors. First of all, Poelzig turns out to be a necrophile who keeps Wedegast’s dead wife in a glass case. Poelzig is also sleeping with Werdegast’s long-lost daughter, who just so happens to be named Karen as well. On top of all this, Poelzig is a practicing Satanist who wants to sacrifice one of Werdegast’s traveling companions during a “dark of the moon” ritual. At the sake of spoiling the pot a little bit, The Black Cat is known for its graphic ending, which has Werdegast flaying Poelzig alive. Even knowing this, do yourself a favor and see this groundbreaking and incredibly important film.
6. Black Sunday (1960)
Three years before making Black Sabbath, director Mario Bava created a Gothic tour-de-force called Black Sunday. Starring British actress Barbara Steele, who would go on to become a horror celebrity known for her many roles in Italy and elsewhere, Black Sunday is a loose re-imagining of Nikolai Gogol’s “Viy,” a short story about a certain Ukrainian superstition. In the film version, Steele plays a noble witch named Asa Vadja, who comes back to life as a vampire in the 19th century after being executed for sorcery in the 17th century. Revived by the blood of Dr. Thomas Krujavan (played by Andrea Checchi), Vadja goes on a quest for immortality that involves plenty of blood. Considered especially gruesome at the time, Black Sunday contains one of cinema’s greatest and most disturbing openings.
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