Every day, more and more films are added to the various streaming services out there, ranging from Netflix to YouTube, and are hitting the airwaves via movie-centric networks like TCM. Therefore, sifting through all of these pictures can be a tedious and often times confounding or difficult ordeal. But, that’s why we’re here. Every week, Joshua brings you five films to put at the top of your queue, add to your playlist, or grab off of VOD to make your weekend a little more eventful. Here is this week’s top five, in this week’s Armchair Vacation.
5. Freaks (Youtube)
Arguably the definitive work of director Tod Browning’s career (Dracula, while more well known, is nowhere near the cinematic feat of terror this truly is) Freaks is Browning’s best feature, and as close to a perfect Pre-Code masterpiece as the short period in film history has to offer. Ostensibly ending Browning’s career, the film has, over the years, become something of a cult hit until the last decade or so, when it has since become considered one of the real triumphs of horror cinema. A member of the US National Film Registry, the film is a brazenly tense and off putting masterpiece of mood and atmosphere proving that while his Universal work may have been relatively minor aesthetically, Browning was as entrancing a horror auteur as there has ever been. And trust me, this isn’t the last time I’ll be discussing his work during this piece.
4. The Haunting (TCM; Saturday, 1am EST)
There are ghost stories, and then there is Robert Wise’s The Haunting. The definitive “trapped in a haunted house” picture, Wise’s film is a tour de force when it comes to the actual direction and craft of its terror. A masterpiece of sound, lighting and actual effects work, this MGM classic opens with an unforgettable description of the house of horrors that will be the setting for this picture, one of the most beautiful black and white horror features ever made. Like the feeling of a hand set on a stove top as the burner is slowly increased, this film is deeply unsettling, but earns every frightening beat thanks to some fantastic performances, and a score that needs to be considered as one of the era’s most unforgettable horror compositions. As fresh today as it has ever been, this film is truly a timeless classic that is set to be aired this weekend as part of TCM’s Friday Night Spooklight.
3. The Invisible Man (Netflix)
Now for a classic Universal horror double feature. Arguably the studio’s greatest film from this period, this 1933 masterpiece from Frankenstein direction James Whale is as tense and truly terrifying a film as this period ever produced. Led by an awe-inspiring performance from a psychotic Claude Rains, the film tells the story of Dr. Jack Griffin, a man who has come across the secret to invisibility. Hell bent on using this new drug, monocane, and its resulting power to ostensibly rule the world (or sell to the highest bidder, so they may go and do that), the film is a breathtaking effects picture that mixes brooding atmosphere with an oddly bleak sense of humor to make a tense, taut and utterly breathless motion picture. Whale’s direction is superb and intense, with the film’s final act as haunting and unforgettable a series of events as Universal pushed out during this time period. Rains’ performance is equally as good as a Lugosi or a Karloff, and hopefully, one day will be seen as the truly iconic turn that it very much is.
2. The Mummy (Netflix)
Speaking of Karloff and underrated turns, no film from Universal’s classic period is as underrated and under-seen as this breathtaking take on the Dracula mythos. Ostensibly Dracula: Egypt, this film from director Karl Freund tells the tale of an Egyptian priest come back to life to take back the heart of a woman he lost centuries ago. Starrign Karloff, Zita Johann and David Manners, the film very much riffs on the Dracula narrative but with such a digression in aesthetic and atmosphere. Instead of being a gothic picture as Browning’s film was, or a brooding thriller like Whale’s pictures, Freund’s film is atmosphere heavy and has only a handful of real “scare” moments. However, with a sense of dread felt throughout the film, the picture is a more melancholic meditation on undying love and focuses more on photography and lighting effects than any of its fellow Universal classics. Unsettling and unforgettable, the film may feel a tad bit dated (read: it truly does), but it also feels utterly vital as an antithesis to modern horror films that think gore and violence is scarier than mood and atmosphere. Do not miss checking this film out this month.
1. The Unknown (Vimeo)
Inarguably the greatest silent horror film you likely haven’t seen. This writer’s second favorite Tod Browning picture (and an odd precursor to a film like Freaks), The Unknown stars Lon Chaney as a criminal on the run, setting up shop as part of a circus collective. Taking on the role of a knife thrower named Alonzo the Armless, he plays opposite an utterly breathtaking and effervescent Joan Crawford, and while this was thought to have been lost to time, thankfully we can enjoy (a majority of) this film now on Vimeo. Hard to hunt down, this film is a thrilling tone piece that features a sneering performance from Chaney and a truly great turn from an unforgettable Crawford, this atmospheric masterpiece of true terror features some of the best work ever committed to celluloid from anyone involved. With a percussive and devastating final act, the film is currently available to watch in relative full form, with a score that will prove to be one of your favorite silent scores you’ll ever hear (granted, it’s not the original, but this will more than do). An absolute wonder, hopefully this film will one day get a Blu-ray release, where it can truly stand as one of the greatest silent horror pictures ever made.