There's just something about black and white movies, isn't there? We can't put a finger on what makes them so good exactly—maybe it's the stark, simple color contrast, the way actors' faces become so shadowed and determined-looking as they're saying their lines, or the sheer creepiness factor of seeing a movie bleached of all color whatsoever.
What exactly attracts us and keeps us watching black-and-white movies doesn't matter—the simple answer being that we just are. And really, there’s nothing scarier or better than a black-and-white horror movie compared to a normal film. (For example, imagine how much more terrifying Alien or The Exorcist would be in black-and-white.)
For this list, we decided to look at some of the best black-and-white films ever released. To avoid this list becoming a collection of “classic” horror movies that everyone knows—the Universal classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, for instance—we opted to look at films released across numerous decades and from various countries, to see which films were the best and scariest that we recommend checking out.
Is there anything new to say about Psycho, one of the most unique, groundbreaking films in the history of psychological horror and American film?
The film follows a secretary, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who embezzles a small fortune from her employer to pay off her boyfriend's debts so that they can finally get married. On the run, Marion decides to spend the night at a quiet roadside motel run by an eccentric, shy young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), with her stay soon taking a turn for the worse.
Arguably Alfred Hitchock's best film (certainly his most well-known), Psycho broke the rules when it came to the topics you could discuss and explore in film, and also what you could show to audiences on screen.
Nowadays, Psycho may be fairly tame by today's standards, but for its time, it showed things no other director was brave enough to depict. As iconic as any Hitchcock movie ever released, the film is likely to remain forever associated with the Master of Suspense, with many of his most noteworthy directorial trademarks all present in this film (blonde female leads, a MacGuffin moving the plot forward, an air of mystery that finally unravels in the last act).
Not only is Psycho commonly ranked as one of the greatest horror movies of all time, it also contains one of the scariest, frequently parodied sequences in all of film—the infamous shower scene, featuring that equally classic, electrifying musical score by Hitchcock’s legendary collaborator, Bernard Herrmann.
Streaming on Peacock.
We're not going to lie and say we have any idea what the hell is going on in Eraserhead, or give some sort of post-grad dissertation explaining its deeper meaning: simply put, it’s a wild hour and a half of your life spent watching a movie.
In a film that lacks any conventional premise, Eraserhead follows the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a factory worker in an otherworldly, dystopian city who finds out that his girlfriend has given birth to an alien-like baby whose nonstop wailing drives the couple to the brink of insanity.
If that plot sounds weird, it's nothing compared to the actual film itself. One of the foremost and well-known surrealist movies in modern cinema, Eraserhead refuses to obey any traditional narrative storytelling methods, instead moving along from bizarre episode to bizarre episode, each featuring surreal imagery and characters that you'd expect to see in a night terror you're unable to wake up from.
Lynch's debut film, Eraserhead remains a wholly original movie bursting with creativity and experimental vision, pushing the boundaries for mainstream American surrealism in film and showing things that audiences had never seen before or since.
For anyone who's familiar with David Lynch (especially his extremely out-there surreal works like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, or the last season of Twin Peaks), you likely know what you're getting into. But for those new to Lynch's work, we simply say: enjoy the ride.
Streaming on HBO Max.
Carnival of Souls
Speaking of Lynch, this extremely innovative, early independent horror movie offered audiences an alternative kind of movie unlike any they had seen before.
Carnival of Souls tells the story of a young woman (Candace Hilligoss) trying to get her life back together after a horrific car accident nearly kills her. As she tries to readjust to life in a new city, she finds herself being relentlessly pursued by a mysterious pale man whom only she is able to see.
Though not very well-known upon its release, the film has since grown to become one of the most influential cult horror movies of all time. Instead of utilizing audacious special effects, the film’s director, Herk Harvey, relied on several distinct filmmaking techniques, including a unique array of shots and camera angles, black-and-white cinematography, and an eerie soundtrack to create a taut, suspenseful atmosphere throughout.
The film would go on to inspire numerous filmmakers over the years from Lynch to George A. Romero, becoming known for its minimalist storyline and inexpensive approach to filmmaking. Incredibly, nearly fifty years after its release, the movie still holds up to this day, especially in its visuals—it looks like an indie film that was made last year, not in 1962.
It remains an incredibly interesting film that showed you didn't need a huge budget to make an exceptionally scary movie—sometimes it's more about the way you present a story that matters (a key lesson Lynch no doubt took away from this movie).
Streaming on HBO Max.
This 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson's now-classic psychological horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is perhaps one of the most genuinely ahead-of-its-time movies of its day.
In an adaptation that faithfully follows the original source material, The Haunting tells the story of a small group of individuals who spend the night at a supposedly haunted New England mansion, led by a paranormal scientist (Richard Johnson) trying to find proof of the supernatural.
Whereas most other horror movies of the early '60s utilized campy horror effects to scare audiences, The Haunting brilliantly builds an increasing level of dread and mystery, relying on a minimal amount of effects and focusing more on the main character's paranoia.
Translating the novel to the Big Screen, The Haunting‘s screenwriter, Nelson Gidding, focused more on the psychological side of the characters, especially the film's main character, Nell (Julie Harris), a depressed woman whose anxiety and mental unease seems to grow the more time she spends in the house.
Seeing from the increasingly anxious eyes of the unstable Nell, the audience is never exactly sure if what they're seeing is a hallucination or not, making you question every little detail presented in the film. The foreboding tone and psychological horror aspect of the film paved the way for later movies that similarly explored a more introspective aspect of horror with characters growing increasingly paranoid and uncertain of their situation or surroundings (you can easily see the influence it had on films like Rosemary's Baby and The Shining).
Opening to a mixed reception initially, the film's reputation has since grown significantly, with legendary filmmaker and cinephile Martin Scorsese naming it one of the scariest movies he's ever seen.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online.
A Field in England
English filmmaker Ben Wheatley might be one of the most underrated directors currently active. His collaborations with screenwriter/wife, Amy Jump, have yielded several highly impressive films, including Kill List, Sightseers, High-Rise, Free Fire, and their remarkable 2013 film, A Field in England.
A psychological horror movie set during the English Civil War, A Field in England follows a small group of army deserters fleeing the aftermath of a bloody battle. Their flight is soon interrupted by the arrival of an Irish wizard (Michael Smiley) who forces the group to search a nearby field for an enigmatic buried treasure, using physical and verbal threats, magic, religious fervor, and “magic” mushrooms to make them do his bidding.
Like many films on this list, A Field in England is unlike any movie you're likely to ever see. Psychedelic and odd, it's a film where literally anything can happen at any time (in his introduction, the group seemingly pulls the Irish wizard straight out of the ground using a rope). The largely unknown English cast all offer fantastic performances—especially Smiley's hostile Pagan wizard, as well as Reece Shearsmith's Christian priest, the film's main character, the wizard's religious foil, and the moral center of the story.
Wheatley's black-and-white cinematography also heightens the tension and eerie tone of the film, with the entire second half literally feeling like some sort of color-neutral bad drug trip (which, incidentally, it is). It's an incredibly well-rounded movie, full of great direction, staging, writing, and acting, and one you're unlikely to forget any time soon.
Fair warning to those who are susceptible to strobe lights and effects—there is one intense sequence in the second half that lasts for a decently long time.
Streaming on Hulu and Prime Video FreeVee
Eyes Without a Face
The directors of the French New Wave never really gravitated towards horror-crime films modeled after Classic Hollywood noirs were always their bread and butter.
However, director Georges Franju, one of the most unique directors of the movement, decided to merge the postmodern, character-driven approach associated with the New Wave with an otherwise traditional horror story premise, creating a strange, oddly sentimental exploration of physical beauty in the process.
Adopting a fairly stereotypical-sounding, mad scientist-type horror story, Eyes Without a Face follows a plastic surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) tirelessly attempting to replace the face of his young daughter, Christiane (Édith Scob), who was horrifically injured in a car accident. Desperate and running out of options, the surgeon soon begins abducting young women he believes resemble Christiane, stealing their faces and attempting to transplant them onto his daughter's.
From that plot alone, you'd likely expect some sort of gory, campy slasher. Though the film does contain some disturbing images (the scenes involving plastic surgery remain extremely shocking, thanks largely to the realistic effects), the movie is also framed with plenty of emotional beauty and complexity. Such is especially the case with the presence of the sweet, innocent Christiane, who appears throughout the movie almost as a benevolent ghost, complete with an angelic, expressional mask that hides her face.
Upon its release, Eyes Without a Face divided critics, some hailing it as a masterpiece and others panning it for its graphic imagery. The movie's reputation has subsequently grown, however, soon becoming a major influence on other filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In (which follows an extremely similar plot). Years later, Christiane’s mask would even inspire the physical appearance of Michael Myers in the Halloween franchise.
Streaming on HBO Max.
Like many other films on this list (A Field in England, Eraserhead, Carnival of Souls), there's no other movie quite as off-the-walls insane as The Lighthouse.
Robert Eggers’ 2019 followup to his critically acclaimed debut, The Witch, The Lighthouse follows two lighthouse keepers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) stationed on a mysterious, remote island off the coast of 1890s' New England. As their assignment on the island continues, they begin to wonder if a team will ever arrive to relieve them, slowly beginning to lose their sanity as the days stretch into months.
On the surface, The Lighthouse feels like The Shining meets Moby Dick, offering a wholly different, completely chaotic illustration of cabin fever and two men’s descent into madness. In many ways, though, The Lighthouse couldn't be any more different from its previous single-setting predecessors, blending in numerous elements—turn of the century vernacular and regionally-accurate accents, mythological sea monsters, and Lovecraftian cosmic horror—to create this psychological horror movie that will leave you terrified, confused, and (weirdly) even chuckling at a few scenes.
Eggers had previously proved himself a master of period pieces with The Witch, and more than managed to shift his style and interest in historical time periods from 1630s' New England to the 1890s. What's more, his black-and-white cinematography captured an unusual, almost Florence Henri-esque eeriness about the wave-pounded New England setting of the film.
Pattinson and Dafoe both bring an absurd level of energy to the film, and manage to maintain it by continuously playing off the other's performance (you'll never see a more hostile, friendly, straightforwardly aggressive “friendship” in any other movie).
Streaming on Showtime.
Night of the Living Dead
Night of the Living Dead‘s importance cannot be understated. Put simply, it set the stage for the entire zombie mythology as we know it today, establishing many tropes associated with the genre and forever changing both horror and the cinematic landscape of filmmaking as a result.
George A. Romero's first breakout success, Night of the Living Dead follows a diverse collection of people fighting off hordes of the undead in the middle of a quiet countryside. Using a minuscule budget (around $114,000) and a largely unknown cast of actors, Romero managed to craft a distinctly claustrophobic survival story that utilized its minimal setting perfectly (the bulk of the movie takes place in the abandoned farmhouse the characters establish as their safe-haven).
It's a film that proved—like many of the best horror movies (as would be the case with The Blair Witch Project and Carnival of Souls)—you didn't need a huge budget to create a terrifying film.
Though it initially received little coverage upon its release in 1968, it soon became known through word-of-mouth recommendations among the midnight movie community, eventually becoming a cult classic. The film, and Romero's subsequent sequels, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, have since been credited with creating the basis for the modern zombie film, with its influence plainly seen in every zombie movie that followed.
Streaming on Peacock, Prime Video, HBO Max, Crackle and Paramount+
The Night of the Hunter
There are not enough words to describe the horror masterpiece that is The Night of the Hunter.
The plot of the film—faithfully adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winner James Agee from the novel of the same name by Davis Grubbs—focuses on a morally corrupt serial killer masquerading as a wholesome reverend (Robert Mitchum in easily his best role) who tricks a woman into marrying him so that he can find $10,000 hidden by her deceased husband. Unfortunately for him, the only one who knows where the money is really located are actually his new wife’s two children, who seem to recognize the reverend for the monster he really is.
Iconic actor Charles Laughton's first and only directorial effort, this amazing thriller has gone on to achieve near-universal acclaim since its release, with the French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, ranking it the second greatest film ever made, right behind Citizen Kane.
Combining the lighting reminiscent of classic Hollywood noir films and the shadow-heavy German expressionist films of the '20s, somewhat surreal imagery, a hauntingly beautiful score, and Southern iconography, Laughton manages to create a film that feels more like a fairy tale set within a Southern Gothic story.
Mitchum himself couldn't have been cast better in the role of the now-iconic villain Reverend Harry Powell (who would be ranked 29 on AFI's 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list), with his signature calm-eyed, tired expression and booming voice translating well into his dual role as the charming, handsome preacher who wins over every adult, and the devious, misogynistic, hypocritical wolf in sheep's clothing that he truly is.
It's one of the most ingeniously made movies ever made, full of impressive, dreamlike images and music that have gone on to inspire everyone from Guillermo del Toro to Exorcist director William Friedkin to indie auteur Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s a movie so well-made, it’ll leave you legitimately upset that Laughton never directed another feature after this incredible debut.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online.
There are numerous noteworthy black-and-white horror movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood that could have earned a spot on this list. However, we decided to go with this highly underrated 1942 collaboration between director Jacques Tourneur and legendary producer Val Lewton, Cat People.
One of the first psychological horror movies in modern cinema, Cat People follows a Serbian émigré (Simone Simon) in New York who begins to believe that—because of an ancient curse on her family—she will turn into a panther if she is intimate with her husband (Kent Smith).
From that plot description, it's easy to dismiss Cat People as one of the many campy B horror movies to come out of the 40s and 50s, but Tourneur's direction and framing—including a heavy reliance on using darkness and shadows and long periods of silence during extremely tense sequences—made for a suspenseful film that managed to separate itself from the more mediocre films of that period.
While the reviews for the film were initially mixed, subsequent reevaluations have been much more generous, praising Cat People for its atmosphere and early exploration of psychological horror, earning a distinction as being the forebearer for later films like Rosemary's Baby. Interestingly, it's also one of the first movies to use a “jump scare.”
Lewton and Tourneur would have a long, successful career in horror throughout the '40s and '50s, but it’s their earliest effort in Cat People—which marked their first foray into horror—that remains one of their best films within the genre.
Streaming on HBO Max.
There's something about black-and-white horror movies especially that seems to catch our attention and draw us in, perhaps even more so than normal films. Such is certainly the case with horror films, with some of the most intense, disorienting horror films ever released presented in a black-and-white format.
As there are more than a few great black-and-white horror films out there, we hope this list narrows the options down a bit in regards to the next movie you plan on watching. Additionally, we also immensely enjoyed the Japanese supernatural horror movie, Kuroneko, the fantastic 1935 Peter Lorre vehicle, Mad Love, the shockingly brutal pre-Code era film, The Black Cat (which featured the first collaboration between horror titans Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi), and the Academy Award-winning Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).