The Best Vintage Halloween Films from the Classic Era

While searching for Halloween films, revisiting the classics, or watching them for the first time, is an experience like no other. Many of the movies below influenced modern horror films and changed the cinema forever. Others combine comedy and macabre so expertly that they are masterpieces.

Let's take a look at the best classic era Halloween films.

1. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Deftly combining comedy with murder, Arsenic and Old Lace is a brilliant film that goes over the top in its absurdity, but we don't mind. Although Cary Grant reportedly didn't like his performance in this film, he presented excellent comedic timing and chemistry with Priscilla Lane.

The opening scene shows Mortimer (Grant) and Elaine (Lane) getting married, although he is an author who mainly writes about the futility of marriage. Before embarking on their honeymoon, Mortimer stops by his aunts' house to tell them the good news, but he is in for a ghastly surprise—a dead body in their window seat.

He soon discovers that his aunts are serial killers, and that is their thirteenth victim. They reveal that they target lonely old men and then bury them in the cellar with his brother Teddy's help. When his brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up with Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), he discovers his brother is a killer too. Grant's frantic actions and the absurd situations make this movie hilarious.

2. Nosferatu (1922)

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Photo by A7A10355_438.JPG – © Archives du 7e Art/Prana-Film Berlin

As an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker's epistolary novel Dracula, this horror film is one of the best, even though it was released 100 years ago. The costume with the teeth and sharp nails is the thing of nightmares, although the character is only in the film for nine minutes.

We almost lost this one when Stoker's widow sued over its likeness to his novel and had the prints and negatives destroyed. A single print was later recovered in other countries. The ending is different – a creative change forced by running out of money that accidentally established the vampire convention of dying from exposure to sunlight – but the film uses much of the book.

3. Frankenstein (1931)

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Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

While the sight of Frankenstein's monster is well-known today, the description in the novel does not match this interpretation of the flat head, bolts, and droopy eyelids. Makeup artist Jack P. Pierce developed this look, and others have used it ever since.

The brilliant Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) starts experimenting with reanimating dead bodies. He finally pieces together dead pieces to create a human (Boris Karloff), but he is afraid of fire. While initially gentle, he accidentally kills a little girl, and the townspeople begin to hunt him.

4. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

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Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

The plot device of this film is clever in that it begins with a discussion with Frankenstein's writer Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester). In the opening, she reveals that the monster survived after the initial story and recounts what happened after.

An even madder scientist named Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) kidnaps Frankenstein's wife to blackmail him into creating another creature. He agrees and makes a mate (once again Lanchester) for his original monster, but she is not receptive to him at all.

5. The Invisible Man (1933)

the invisible man
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

In another science experiment gone wrong, we have The Invisible Man. This idea has been done many times, but the original one starring Claude Rains is the best and a must-see for any horror fan.

The story revolves around Dr. Jack Grffin (Rains), who finds a way to make himself invisible. He soon goes crazy and starts murdering people as his loved ones search for him. Rains is as stellar as the mad scientist, and the effects are great for the 1930s.

6. Dracula (1931)

Hammer Films
Image Credit: Wiki Commons, By Hammer Films, Universal-International, Public Domain.

Although many men have played the iconic Dracula, Bela Lugosi played him first. His speech pattern and his Hungarian accent have been imitated repeatedly, and the role would follow him throughout life and death. He was buried in a Dracula cape, though not one from the film.

Since the sound was new, the film is mostly quiet except for dialogue, with no real musical soundtrack. They didn't think the audience would accept background music without explaining its origin. The story of Dracula is well-presented here, with him arriving in London to prey on Renfield, and Lucy and then setting his sights on Mina. Van Helsing and Mina's beau John try to stop him.

7. The Phantom of The Opera (1925)

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Image Credit: Universal Pictures

Although this is a silent film, The Wolf Man‘s dad, Lon Chaney, plays the phantom here, and the face is frighteningly perfect. They kept his self-applied makeup secret until the film premiered, so no one knew ahead of time what he would look like until it was revealed in the movie. With so many versions of this film, this one is uniquely terrifying.

We follow the story of understudy Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), who wants to be an opera star. The phantom lures her into his underground world, where he is revealed not to be a ghost, but a man with a severely disfigured face.

8. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Image Credit: Universal Pictures

Returning to comedy, we have the delightful film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Not only do we get Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange here), but we also have Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. reprising their roles as Dracula and the Wolf Man, respectively.

Freight handlers Wilbur (Lou Costello)  and Chick (Bud Abbott) get into trouble when they stumble upon the remains of Frankenstein's monster and Dracula, who intends to revive him with a new brain. Thankfully, Larry Talbot shows up to stop Dracula, but Wilbur is captured by the vampire, who is going to take his brain for the monster. Soon, all the monsters are causing havoc when Larry turns into Wolf Man. Full of lots of laughs, this is one of the best comedy/Halloween films.

9. I Married a Witch (1942)

married a witch
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

This film and Bell, Book and Candle inspired the TV series Bewitched. Despite the apparent unprofessional behavior of Veronica Lake, at least according to costar Fredric March, the film is still a fun witchy tale for Halloween.

It features a beautiful seventeenth-century witch named Jennifer (Lake) who returns after being burned to death by a man named Jonathan Wooley. Having cursed all of his descendants for his deed, she is freed in the twentieth century and tries to make Wallace Wooley (March) even more miserable by messing up his engagement.

10. Blithe Spirit (1945)

blithe spirit
Image Credit: United Artists

In addition to being funny, the greatest thing about this film is how they did the ghost effect on Elvira (Kay Hammond). Her clothes, wig, and makeup are all green, but she wears bright red nail polish and lipstick. She would glow even in dimly lit scenes with the addition of a special light. The witty banter and storyline are the stars here, even though playwright Noel Coward wasn't thrilled with it.

To gain material for his latest book, Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) and his wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) arrange for Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) to come to their home and perform a séance. Things backfire when she inadvertently brings back Charles' first wife, Elvira. She causes all sorts of mischief as Charles is the only one able to see her.

11. The Ghost Breakers (1940)

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

While playing the coward in many films, Bob Hope is said to have enjoyed this change of pace where he played the hero instead. He is joined by Paulette Goodard and Willie Best in this comedy/horror/mystery film.

The premise focuses on Mary (Goodard), who inherits a family home (and haunted castle) on an island in Cuba. She decides to go check it out and brings along Larry (Hope) and his butler Alex (Best). While here, they encounter ghosts and zombies to fight before finding the key to a treasure.

12. The Wolf Man (1941)

the wolf man
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Following in his father's footsteps for movie monsters, Lon Chaney Jr. stars here for the first time as The Wolf Man. This film had a lasting impact on the way the legend of the werewolf evolved. These ideas include killing them with a silver bullet and turning into one when bitten.

Despite being planned originally for Boris Karloff, Chaney Jr. does a fantastic job with his portrayal of a bit of a shy man versus the violence of his werewolf persona. Larry (Chaney Jr.) is bitten by a werewolf when trying to help a gypsy it is attacking. The gypsy confirms that he will turn into a werewolf, and he ends up fighting for his life as he is hunted.

13. The Mummy (1932)

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Image Credit: Universal Pictures

Just a year after Frankenstein, Boris Karloff returned to the screen as another kind of monster in The Mummy. While he had a bunch of makeup and costumes in Frankenstein, we see his face for most of this film. His cold and unforgiving portrayal of Imhotep may be very different from 1999's loose remake, but he is chilling.

In this version, Imhotep hides out for ten years after he wakes, and works to uncover the tomb of his lost love. When he finds her reincarnated in Helen (Zita Johann), he attempts to bring her memories of her past life back.

14. Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature From The Black Lagoon
Image Credit: Universal-International.

Popular with 3D midnight showings, Creature from the Black Lagoon was actually filmed on the downswing of the 3D craze. Because of this, not many people saw the 3D version when it was initially released. It makes for a fun outing now, if you can stay up that late.

The film centers around a scientific expedition, looking for fossils but finds Gill-Man instead. They capture it, but it escapes and kidnaps Kay (Julie Adams). The creature was played by two men, one on land (Ben Chapman) and one in the water (Ricou Browning). Browning had a lighter suit and could hold his breath for up to four minutes at a time.

Guillermo del Toro credits the film as his inspiration for the Oscar-winning Shape of Water – he wanted to make a movie where the monster got the girl for a change.

15. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)

Frankenstein meets the wolfman
Image Credit: Universal Pictures

In a fascinating monster flip, we have Bela Lugosi breaking free of his typecast vampire character to star instead as Frankenstein's monster. He joins Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man. Originally the film had references to the monster being blind, but when scenes were removed, so was that detail. Lugosi's portrayal of the monster walking with arms outstretched was made fun of since it was not explained, but it did establish the monster's lumbering walk.

When Larry/Wolf Man is resurrected, he searches for a cure to keep him from changing. The only answer he comes up with is that he wants to die, and Dr. Frankenstein is the only one who can help him. When he searches for the doctor, he instead finds Frankenstein's daughter and the original monster on ice. This film is an exciting mashup of stories and characters and provides an offbeat but entertaining Halloween film.

16. The Phantom Carriage (1921)

the phantom carriage
Image Credit: Swedish Biograph Company.

If you have an appreciation for really old movies and their use of special effects, you'll love The Phantom Carriage and how this film was able to create the illusion of ghosts, even with the basic movie-making technology that was around when the movie came out in the early 20s.

Film buffs praise this silent movie, and it's ranked pretty highly for its time. The plot follows three drunk men on New Year's Eve who tell the legend about the last person to die for the year. Whoever that person is will have to drive the Phantom Carriage for the whole next year, picking up the dead as the months tick on. But just as midnight is about to hit, one of the three men dies and is then the last man to die that year. 

17. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

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Image Credit: Goldwyn Distributing Company.

Another silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a German horror film from 1920, but the movie does a wonderful job of showing a lot without any words. 

The movie is about a hypnotist who uses a man who sleepwalks to commit murders. When a young man comes to visit Dr. Caligari, he awakens to find his friend killed. Suspicious of Caligari, he frames the man for murdering his friend, but little does he know, that the love of his life is his next intended victim. 

18. Dead of Night (1945)

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Image Credit: Ealing Studios.

Moving back into the era of sound, Dead of Night is about a group of people who are all invited to spend the weekend at a country estate to share their experiences with each other about the supernatural. But when one of the guests talks about the sense of impending doom he has from his dreams, the guests start to see the events unravel in real-time.

This is one of the best examples of early horror, and the film really does speak for itself with it's creepy characters and plot.

Author: Kristen Winiarski


Kristen Winiarski has worked as a professional writer for 15 years, studying classic TV shows and films to further her expertise and understanding about how they have evolved. This passion led her to start her own classic movie blog before branching out into the professional entertainment writing world.