by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
In an era when expensive computer-generated special effects and 3-D appear to be all the rage, we often forget that there was a time when pictures looked different and they were even (gasp!) black and white. A long time may have passed since these films first hit the movie theatres, but the horrors contained within these pieces of celluloid still haunt us. Discover 10 great black-and-white scary movies, and journey to a time when the screen was drained of colour but not of blood. Feel free to recommend other great movies void of colour in the comments.
German director Fritz Lang, who directed the silent classic Metropolis, also helmed this gem of a movie centering around a child murderer played by Peter Lorre (both Lang and Lorre would leave Germany a few years later when facing the rise of Nazism). The police are unable to catch the killer and it is the criminals who finally decide to nab Lorre themselves because such murders intrude on their business. This is a movie about shadows and the men who live in them. It’s also about a dark, ugly and decadent Berlin full of cheap dives and disgusting streets. Baby-faced, almost comical, Lorre’s murderer is more horrifying because he is so banal. Lang is a master at hinting rather than showing, with all the murders occurring off screen, and is able to crank up a fair bit of suspense during the movie. Lang’s transition into talkies is impeccable, and he uses both sound and dialogue in interesting ways to tell his story, for example, by having the killer whistle “In The Hall Of The Mountain King”, which becomes a leitmotif. This has been signaled as the birthplace of the serial-killer procedural.
This film by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer is, obviously, a vampire film. It is not, however, old or boring. While Lugosi’s Dracula got old and even comical, Vampyr, just like Nosferatu, has lived long past its expiration date. It’s a stylish, atmospheric, almost silent film. There’s a beautiful dream sequence where the protagonist finds himself in a coffin. The camera work is amazing and the cinematographer employed several tricks to give the sequences a blurry, dreamy look that works so well. The black-and-white seems perfectly suited to the material: a world of stark shadows and light, and possibly monsters. The pace is slow, but if you’re willing to give it a chance, it’ll certainly entertain you. Despite having a rather common plot (girl is victim of vampire; hero discovers this and decides to vanquish vampire) it still has the capacity to surprise, especially in the way it dispatches a character towards the end.
This is the movie that wrecked Tod Browning’s career and one can see why: the subject matter is extremely risky. It concerns a carnival full of “freaks”. Browning’s stroke of genius occurred during casting, when he assembled dozens and dozens of real-life performers with physical deformities, but cast the beautiful, handsome and so-called “normal” people as the villains. Viewers were scandalized by the film and the original 90-minute print was shortened to 60 minutes, and a new, happier ending tacked on. I remember one of my teachers railed against this movie, calling it an affront, but it is actually a movie that treats its characters with respect. We witness the daily lives of the carnival performers, we sympathize with them, and grow to hate the money-grubbing Cleopatra. Browning ran away from home as a teenager and joined the circus, where he worked as a clown. His knowledge, and affection, for this type of environment is palpable throughout the film. It’s a very interesting movie which maintains its impact decades after it was made.
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
My love for Val Lewton has been well-documented on this website and I Walked With a Zombie certainly has much to love in all its low-budget glory. A thinly-veiled remake of Jane Eyre, it succeeds in creating a dreamy world during its scenes of nightly Voodoo rituals, particularly the sequence wih two main female characters walking together in the fields. There’s also the tall, otherwordly Carre-Four, who seems to stand vigil like a loa made flesh. This is a psychological thriller and as such, it does not offer graphic violence. Jessica Holland might be a zombified slave, or her condition could have a perfectly logical medical explanation. Finally, there’s is a subtext of colonialism running through the film, including the image of Ti-Misery, a statue that the original colonists of the island brought with them and which depict a man pierced by arrows, and Mrs. Stand, who seems to straddle two worlds: the Western world and the Caribbean. The conflict between these two worlds could easily be made fun of, or minimized, but since I Walked With a Zombie is so ambiguous in nature, they both remain at odds. After all, Voodoo could be the most reasonable explanation. It is also significant that unlike other films of the time, say, Gone With the Wind, these are not happy go-lucky slaves. It is very clear that slavery was hell, and there is an inherent tension between the descendants of those slaves and the upper-crust whites that still dominate the island.
I Vampiri (1956)
I considered Black Sunday (for obvious reasons), for inclusion on this list, but since I’ve already mentioned it on another list, I thought I’d pick something different-yet-Italian and a film that predated Black Sunday. The obvious choice is I Vampiri (a.k.a. Lust of the Vampire), which is a riff off the Erzsebet Bathory legend. Mario Bava (normally a cinematographer) was employed as a replacement director and here, he shows some of the qualities that would make him so beloved among horror fans. Good camerawork, an efficient story and suitable pacing all make a very decent little movie. Keep in mind this is early Bava, before Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, or The Whip and the Body. Eventually, he would display much more graphic and stylish work, all rendered in startling colour. Perhaps because of this, I Vampiri is such an interesting film in comparison to his other movies. Word of warning, or perhaps of enticement: there are no aristocratic vampires with fangs. In that sense, it’s more science fiction than supernatural horror.
Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960)
You might be more familiar with Billy Idol’s song, Eyes Without a Face, than this French film. But if you haven’t seen it, the titular character who lacks the face is a haunting, tragic figure. Christiane spends the movie wearing a life-like mask that hides her disfigured features while her father murders women in an effort to graft new skin onto Christiane’s visage and create a new, beautiful face. Despite what may seem like splashy horror elements, the final result is a poetic, quiet film. This is an intentional move from the filmmakers, who wanted to avoid the censor’s scissors, but it still has an impact. Edith Scob, who plays Christiane, spends the movie trapped behind a mask, yet manages a wonderful performance, exuding pathos as she tries to phone her boyfriend. The script was developed by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narceja, both of whom had worked on another French classic, Les Diaboliques, and the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. Their command of the thriller is evident in this movie.
There is no greater proof that black-and-white can work wonders with horror than Psycho. The shot-by-shot remake, which added nothing but colour, showed how unnecessary this element ultimately was for the success of the film. Reportedly, Hitchcock decided to shoot in black-and-white to keep the budget low (he was financing the project himself), but it might also have been to tone down the murders. The final result is an amazing movie with elements that have now become visual classics, like the looming house upon a hill, Anthony Perkins chewing candy corn as the car sinks into a swamp or the reveal of “Mother”. The shower sequence is one of the most famous bits of horror film. Reportedly, when Hitchcock was running the film for the censors, one of them got up and yelled, ordering him to stop the film. The censor was sure he had seen a naked breast, but upon review, this was not the case. Chocolate syrup was employed to simulate blood and the three-minute scene has more than 50 cuts. Adding to the atmosphere is a thrilling soundtrack.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
This is another example of a movie that excels, partially because of its black-and-white cinematography. We’ve seen numerous examples of what zombie films in colour look like, with all the red blood splattered, but the black-and-white, which was dictated due to the low-budget nature of this film, makes the scenes of the zombies feasting on the living more horrific and serves to hide the fact that the film was shot on a dime and a prayer. It’s easy to appreciate why this movie has had such a cult following, spanning a whole new sub-genre of horror films. Shockingly original for its time period, it throws convention out the window from the very beginning, when Johnny and Barbara make a fateful trip to a cemetery. Unlike other movies, nobody is safe from the living dead. There is no assurance that the heroes will make it through the night. There isn’t even assurance of who the heroes are, as the house becomes divided and people begin to bicker. Most importantly, there is a pervasive dread of the unknown. Why is this happening? How can we fight back? There is no sure answer and the cavalry can’t save you.
Beautiful, delicate and icy blond, Carol is a dream babe who doesn’t seem quite right. There’s nothing too obvious at the beginning, but little hints, like the cracks in her room or the way she stands, eventually turn into more obvious clues of derangement. Hands pop out from the walls to grab her and she imagines herself being raped. Repulsion is a trip into the mind of a woman going mad, with her oppressive apartment as a witness of her mental breakdown. While women-gone-mad is a common trope (“The Yellow Wallpaper”), Roman Polanski’s take on this tried-and-true subject matter is effective and novel, blending art house with insanity. One of the interesting turns is the lack of explanations for Carol’s problems. While Psycho offers a doctor neatly giving us a run-down of Norman Bates’ issues, there is no such medical answer in Repulsion. We are left with hints but nothing concrete. Must there be something concrete? Perhaps sometimes, like Oscar Wilde said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has to go.” In this case, Carol and the apartment are the ones dueling.
Osoi Hito (2004)
This is the only contemporary film included on the list for obvious reasons: you don’t get much black-and-white these days (notable exception The Call of Cthulhu, reviewed in depth in one of our columns). It is a low-budget Japanese film, known as Late Bloomer in the English-language market, which shares a degree of affinity with another one of the films on this list. Like Freaks, Late Bloomer employs a real-life physically-handicapped cast, with a lead who moves around in a wheelchair. It’s also about how the handicapped man, Sumida, starts killing people. A handicapped killer? Exploitation galore? You’d think so, but the director has put much care into the depiction of his characters. The brilliance of the film is that it shows Sumida’s everyday activities. He likes to party. He likes going to concerts. He enjoys his conversations with his buddy. Here is a character who is not pitied, like many people with disabilities in movies are, or pseudo-admired with a pat on the head like in the Lifetime movie of the week. We see Sumida as a person, a real individual. Many horror movies are not really horrific. Late Bloomer is horrific because it is uncompromising and because you ultimately care about Sumida. The film is by no means perfect; its low budget shows and the director’s propensity for wild cuts is more annoying than stylish.