Halloween is coming up and that means it’s scary movie season! We certainly aren’t short of choices right now as we experience a critical renaissance of horror films so good that people have started pretending they’re not horror so they can like them in the snobbiest way possible. ‘Post-horror’, my a*se. For those of us who love the genre, we know there’s an endless array of titles out there to satisfy whatever you’re in the mood of. Thankfully, the public domain is full of amazing and criminally underrated horror movies for those who want the thrills and chills on a more cost-effective basis. Here are some amazing horror movies you can watch for free now! If there are any other public domain favorites you think we’ve missed, make sure to share them in the comments.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS
In the early 1960s, Herk Harvey, a director of industrial and educational films based in Lawrence, Kansas, decided he wanted to make a feature. He had a micro-budget of $33,000, less than a month to get it done, and little in the way of sets and locations beyond what he could find at hand. The end result was Carnival of Souls, one of the great independent horror films and perhaps one of the best one-hit-wonders in cinema (Harvey never made another feature again.) The deeply unsettling story of a woman who survives a near-death experience then finds herself haunted by a pale-faced man remains strikingly modern in its style and tone. The organ-based score alone is a great reason to watch it, although it’s also highly worth your time to check out a title that’s been a major influence on the works of people like George A. Romero and David Lynch.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
Where would the horror genre be without George Romero and his zombies? Night of the Living Dead created the template for the zombie film and its use as a political allegory, something Romero remained the king of until his death. The grainy crudeness of this low-budget endeavor gives it a level of gut-churning realism that lingers with you long after the lights have gone up. That undeniable strain of nihilism also makes it a discomfortingly modern viewing experience, but there’s a reason audiences flock to this one over fifty years since it premiered.
A Year after he leaped to fame as Dracula, Bela Lugosi starred in this pre-Hays Code horror film that many considered to be the first feature-length zombie movie. It has all the markers of a film made before the Production Code started censoring horror: Strange psychosexual allure, questionable racial elements, and a kind of lasciviousness that’s hard to fully describe. White Zombie is very much a B-Movie of its time but it’s a fascinating and short watch worth your time if you want to see how the zombie genre as a whole created its foundations in Hollywood. While the film was a critical failure upon release, it’s since gained reappraisal and greater public attention in large part thanks to Rob Zombie stealing the title for his band.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
Is it really Halloween if you don’t watch at least once Vincent Price movie? The man is practically the season’s patron saint and for good reason. I wouldn’t trust any other actor to play an eccentric millionaire with a haunted house and neither should you. Director William Castle was the king of the gimmick in the 1950s. Screenings of House on Haunted Hill featured ‘Emergo’, wherein some theaters rigged a pulley system with plastic skeletons that would fly over the audience during key scenes. Even if you can’t wire up such a thing in your own home, House of Haunted Hill is still ideal for an old-school haunted house movie night.
Abel Ferrara remains one of the great provocateurs of American cinema. Even his most mainstream and critically adored films as director have the unavoidable allure of sleaze surrounding them. He’s an exploitation film-maker and proud of it. His second film, Driller Killer, is arguably still his most infamous, in large part because it was listed as one of the most controversial ‘video nasties’ in the UK, resulting in the film being banned for 15 years. For a film with such an evocative title, Driller Killer is not the ceaseless blood fest you’d imagine it to be. Really, it’s a psychodrama about a man at his wit’s end who finds solace and catharsis through a drill. Who can’t relate to that?
This documentary-style horror film is a boundary-breaking oddity that has stunningly lost none of its power over the century since its release. Part academic exercise, part pseudo-exploitation horror movie, part piss-take, Häxan is a study of paranoia and superstition that takes itself just seriously enough while still indulging in its baser instincts. At the time, it was the most expensive Scandinavian silent movie ever made and was banned in the USA for its graphic depictions of sex and violence. Even the biggest skeptics among us will find much to enjoy in this exploration of perversity and fear.
THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG
I love a good serial killer movie and it was none other than Alfred Hitchcock who helped to define the genre in 1927 with his silent film The Lodger. Based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, which was inspired by Jack the Ripper, the film focuses on the hunt for a serial killer of women known as ‘The Avenger.’ Hitchcock did much to define the cinematic thriller as we know it and it’s fascinating to see him so early in his career — this was only his third film — laying the foundations for the iconic career that was to come.
ALICE, SWEET ALICE
Plenty of films tried to pay homage to — or just rip off — the Italian Giallo genre, but it’s Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice which arguably did so the best. Taking heavy inspiration from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, the slasher film features Brooke Shields in her film debut as a young girl who is brutally murdered at her first communion and her older sister who becomes the prime suspect. Chock full of style and a hefty helping of Catholic iconography, it took a while for Alice, Sweet Alice to find its audience but its legacy lives on.
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