For as long as Hollywood has been around, filmmakers have endeavored to make dreams
come to life.
As far back as a century ago, in film’s infancy, attempts at grand spectacle were
already being made, and Hollywood has never stopped trying to improve its capacity to
blow our minds.
But it was also discovered early on that going straight for the fear center was just as effective,
and often cheaper, than giving the audience visions of the fantastic.
So today, we're going over 10 early films that are every bit as unsettling today as they were decades ago-
some that were even deemed too disturbing for mainstream audiences.
Freaks (1932) Tod Browning was already a veteran film director
by the time he scored an enormous success with 1931’s Dracula, the Bela Lugosi-starring
classic that helped to define the horror genre.
Due to that film’s groundbreaking success, Browning was given pretty much free rein to
create a unique vision for his next project.
He did not fail in that respect; his 1932 film Freaks has been described as inhabiting
a genre all its own, one that no other filmmaker has dared to touch.
It’s the story of circus sideshow performers, a trapeze artist and strongman, who conspire
to kill one of their fellow performers for his inheritance.
But the cast was populated with actual freaks- circus performers recruited by the producers,
including conjoined twins, a limbless man known as “The Human Torso”, and others
with the types of deformations that audiences had simply never seen.
Test audiences were treated to a horrifying ending in which the scheming pair are attacked
by the freaks during a rainstorm, with the strongman castrated and the trapeze artist
mutilated beyond recognition.
Most of this ending has been lost, as these test audiences were appalled and one woman
even threatened a lawsuit against production company MGM, claiming that the film caused
her to have a miscarriage.
Despite being given a new ending and undergoing other extensive cuts, the film was still considered
extremely controversial upon its release.
It effectively ended Tod Browning’s career and was completely banned in the UK for 30 years
The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1959) Shot in 1959, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die
didn’t see a theatrical release for three years, as distributors were leery of its content.
American International pictures, never a studio to shy away from schlock, released the film
to drive-in theaters in the summer of 1962 to shocked audiences, who got a look at what
might be considered the first gore film.
A mad transplant scientist accidentally decapitates his fiancee, but manages to keep her head
alive in his lab with mad transplant science.
While he searches for a new body for her, she develops a telepathic connection with
a hulking monster that lurks behind a locked door in the lab.
The monster gets free- but the chaos that ensued was not exactly what
1960's audiences were used to seeing.
Its first victim has his arm ripped right the hell off, the stump leaving a bloody smear
on the wall as he collapses.
The second, the mad scientist himself, has a giant chunk bitten out of his neck and spat
onto the floor as the lab burns down, killing everyone in it.
This type of shocking violence, coming near the end of what had been a reasonably conventional
sci-fi movie, disturbed audiences and contributed to the film’s reputation as being “a head”
of its time- no pun intended.
Ah! La Barbe! (1906)
Segundo de Chamon has been called the Spanish
George Melies and the most significant Spanish filmmaker of the silent era.
Like Melies, he was a pioneer in camera tricks and editing techniques, and employed both
early and often- to sometimes disturbing effect.
In one of his most famous short films, Ah!
La Barbe!, also known as The Funny Shave, a man is jovially preparing to shave when
he decides to take a taste of his shaving cream.
This apparently leads to some odd hallucinations, as he sees a series of grotesque caricatures
before him in the mirror, each one freakier than the last.
While the film’s subject doesn’t appear to be particularly alarmed, it’s safe to
say this is not anything we’d ever want to see in our bathroom mirror in the morning.
It takes our hero nearly two full minutes to snap out of his shaving cream induced stupor
and react in the appropriate manner.
The Man Who Laughs (1928) The 1928 film The Man Who Laughs was an American
production with a German director famous for working in that country’s typical Expressionist style
It is a romance, and a melodrama, and not at all a horror film.
But its main character, Gwynplaine- although he’s supposed to be sympathetic- is simply
impossible to look at without hearing a small creaking sound in that part of your brain
where nightmares come from.
The character is disfigured as a child with a horrifying, permanent grin, making him sympathetic
in the way that the Hunchback of Notre Dame or the Phantom of the Opera is supposed to be.
He works as a circus freak, of course, and pines for the love of a blind girl before
receiving a big inheritance and happily sailing away to England.
Really, that’s it.
No terrifying turns of plot, no real horror elements to the story at all,
but, just look at Gwynplaine.
Look at him.
Obviously, it’s an extremely unsettling character.
It should come as no surprise that the hero of this little-remembered 1920s melodrama
is the obvious inspiration for one of the most towering villains in all of pop culture.
L'Inferno (1911) The long and storied history of Italian cinema
begins with the 1911 film L’Inferno, the very first Italian feature film ever made.
The film raked it in at home and overseas, grossing $2 million in 1911 money in the United
States alone, despite- or maybe because of- the fact that it’s really freaking disturbing.
Even today, the film’s old-timey qualities tend to enhance the creepy factor rather than
It’s based on Dante’s Inferno, and its depictions of hell- with suicides hanging
from trees and demons torturing hopeless souls- were freaky enough to be reused several times
in films as late as 1954.
In fact, censors required that the 33 year-old footage be removed from the 1944 film Go Down, Death
because- among other reasons- of a scene in which a woman’s naked breast is briefly
seen, which must also be a cinematic first.
L’Inferno showed very early on that people would pay good money to have the shit scared
out of them, and filmmakers around the world took note.
Maniac (1934) Maniac was directed by Dwain Esper, who was
not so much a film director as he was a smart businessman who knew how to exploit the public’s
taste for the strange.
Esper worked outside the traditional Hollywood system, taking his pictures on the road and
advertising them with lurid flyers promising all manner of craziness that was forbidden
by the Hays Code in Hollywood films.
He bought the rights to the aforementioned Freaks, and was also responsible for a lot
of exploitation dreck with titles like Marihuana: Weed With Roots In Hell.
Produced in 1934,
It tells the story of a Vaudeville actor and sex pervert who murders his doctor and assumes
his identity, but the whole film plays as if it were put together by an actual lunatic.
True to its subject matter, it features startling amounts of partial and actual nudity for a
film its age, and features one notoriously gruesome scene where a live cat has its eyeball
popped out, which is thought to be either a very good special effect or the clever use
of a cat with a false eye.
The film serves up plenty of psychoanalyzing and purports to be some kind of cautionary
tale, as if it weren’t giving its audience exactly what they came to see.
Haxan (1922) The 1922 Danish film Haxan, subtitled Witchcraft
Through the Ages, is a visual masterwork for its time.
Presented as a documentary, it puts forth the idea that the Salem witches were suffering
from mental illness, but this is neither here nor there; when the film segues away from
its informational portions and into its vignettes, that’s when the unadulterated horror takes over.
Director Benjamin Christensen portrays a truly terrifying Satan who lures women from their
beds in the middle of the night; there are also depictions of torture, grave robbing
and full-on nudity, though more of the artistic than gratuitous type.
It was all enough to earn the film a ban in the United States, although it was highly
acclaimed in Denmark and Sweden, and was the most expensive Scandinavian production of that time.
Some of its more disturbing footage would be recycled for later low budget exploitation
productions, such as the aforementioned Maniac.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) While she is not exactly a household name,
the experimental films of Maya Deren influenced a legion of Hollywood filmmakers.
She boldly embraced any and all techniques that would serve her vision, and her films
are notable for pioneering techniques like jump cuts, superimposition, multiple exposures
and slow motion.
Perhaps her best known short film, 1943’s Meshes of the Afternoon is a masterpiece of
ominous mood and circular narrative whose influence on film in general is plain.
Our heroine, Deren herself, is having a very weird day.
Events seem to keep repeating themselves, things in her home keep moving around, and
then there’s the matter of the black-cloaked man with a mirror for a face.
The short’s unprecedented use of bizarre camera angles and its droning, percussive
and unnerving soundtrack add to the entire hallucinatory experience.
Deren’s intent was to create a visual representation of devastating psychological issues, and it’s
safe to say she succeeded.
While few are familiar with this piece, film scholars acknowledge its impact; in 2015,
the BBC cited it as the 40th greatest American film- of any kind- ever made.
Eyes Without a Face (1960) Among horror fans, the 1960 French-Italian
film Eyes Without a Face is legendary.
Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Eyes Without a Face barely passed
European censors due to its subject matter and received an edited release in the US.
It’s the story of a mad doctor who is obsessed with finding his disfigured daughter a new
face, even if the donors are less than willing.
This 1960 film literally shows, with unflinching detail, the surgical removal of a young woman’s face--
and that’s not even the creepiest part.
The daughter is forced to wear a mask to hide her disfigurement, and its proto-Michael Myers
blankness is absolutely transfixing, and not in a good or comfortable way.
Of course, when we actually do get a look at her under the mask, it is not any better at all.
Despite a lukewarm reception upon release, the film has come to be considered a masterpiece
and its influence on other filmmakers has been substantial.
John Carpenter has acknowledged that Michael Myers’ look was inspired by the film,
John Woo largely copied the face transplant sequence for his film Face/Off, and yes- Billy Idol
also cited it as the inspiration for his hit song of the same name.
Un Chien Andalou (1929) Un Chien Andalou was produced by the Spanish
filmmaker Luis Bunuel and famed artist Salvador Dali.
As one might expect from any work in which Dali is involved, it does not make a hell
of a lot of sense.
There is no actual plot; title cards jump from “eight years later” to “around
three in the morning” to “sixteen years ago” with nothing seeming to change very much.
The film is punctuated throughout with odd and disturbing imagery, such as a shot of
a woman prodding at a severed hand with a cane, but it is the film’s opening sequence
that earns it its place among the most disturbing things one could ever hope to see.
A man idly fiddles with a razor, contemplating the moon.
Suddenly, there’s a woman sitting in a chair.
She stares ahead dispassionately, not even flinching as the man slices open her eyeball,
and the camera lingers as its insides spill out.
There were many theories as to how this effect was achieved, but Bunuel eventually disclosed
that used a dead calf, shaving its skin down to make it appear as human as possible.
Notes between the director and Dali revealed that the film contains “No idea or image
that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind”, and that “nothing in the
film symbolizes anything”.