Jacob McMurray will be forever haunted by The Exorcist and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Still, McMurray, senior curator of a new exhibition on horror films at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, says what scared us in the past may not scare us now. His exhibit tracks the horror genre from 1920s silent film like “Nosferatu” to the CGI-reincarnated “It.”
“[Technology] has changed the game…and has led to more films that are overtly scary,” McMurray said.
But “those early films set the archetypes” for today’s horror movies, he added. And slow-burning films like “The Witch,” released in 2015, have modern horror returning to its roots.
Here are McMurray’s five favorite early horror films to watch this Halloween — films that also influenced the modern genre. In his words:
1. “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)” directed by Robert Weine, 1920
It features a crazy hypnotist (Caligari) who compels a sleepwalker (Cesare) to commit murders. This silent film is a masterpiece of German Expressionist filmmaking and a big inspiration to the nascent American film industry. Reflective of the screenwriters’ oppressive and horrific experiences in World War One, the stark, monochrome sets and dark, angular, graphic style evoke a particularly unsettling sense of dread.
2. “Bride of Frankenstein” directed by James Whale, 1935
This is director James Whale’s masterpiece, and is one of the few horror film sequels that is better than the already excellent original. The action begins right after the events of “Frankenstein,” with Boris Karloff as The Monster receiving his own monstrous mate. The film is beautifully shot, campy, equally funny and chilling in parts, with amazing performances by Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius and Elsa Lancaster as the titular Bride.
3. “Les Diaboliques” directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955
The film features an abused wife and mistress who conspire to murder their husband/lover, but after they ditch the body, it goes missing, and strange stuff starts happening. The film was a direct inspiration for “Psycho,” because Alfred Hitchcock tried to option the screenplay rights for “Les Diaboliques,” but Clouzot got to it first. Hitchcock made “Psycho” instead, but Clouzot made an equal masterpiece of psychological horror, with an incredible twist ending.
4. “The Wicker Man” directed by Robin Hardy, 1973
It’s a super-slow burn mystery/horror film and features a devout policeman who tries to boss around a village of pagans. I love this movie, because it’s such an atypical horror film. The soundtrack, by Paul Giovanni, consists of breezy and bawdy psych-folk songs, and the protagonist is so frustrating and unlikeable that you almost rejoice when the pagan folk of Summerisle offer him up to the gods for the future health of their failing crops.
5. “Suspiria” directed by Dario Argento, 1977
It is about a young American dancer who attends a ballet school in Germany run by witches. But the plot doesn’t really matter; the film has a dream-like quality where the narrative details are pretty meaningless. As a viewer, you are entirely entranced by the surreal pacing, the insane theatrical gore, the vivid, ultra-saturated colors, and the crazy soundtrack by Italian progressive rock band “Goblin” (which was recorded before the film was shot).