To make a horror movie today without color is probably inconceivable; how else could you possibly depict all that blood and gore without red? But there was once a time when horror depended on moods, on light and shadow, and black-and-white provided the perfect palette. Dracula's castle never gained much by adding color. So what if a couple of tapestries show up on the walls? The important things are the creaks and cobwebs and the darkness. Moreover, black-and-white movies play better on TV: On dark nights when the lights are all off; they're more like tingly campfire tales told with flashlights, cozy but creepy.
For my top seven, I decided to start at the sound era, since many silent-era films used color tinting and could not be called true black-and-white. I wish I could have spared room for Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), the anthology film Dead of Night (1945), Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby's original The Thing (1951), Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), 'Herk' Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962), Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965), Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995) and many others.
Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
When scholars are forced to discuss horror films, they grudgingly mention this and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) -- but don't hold that against the films. Vampyr is not only one of the greatest of all horror films, but one of the flat-out spookiest. It concerns a dreamy young man who reads occult books. During his travels, he checks into an inn, receives a warning from a ghost and finds himself in the middle of a mystery involving two sisters. Dreyer provides all kinds of chilling, startlingly simple effects using shadows and off-screen sounds. A climactic shot has had scholars buzzing for decades: A point-of-view shot from a corpse, shot through a little window in the lid of a coffin. Dreyer made this between two other masterpieces, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and his witchcraft drama Day of Wrath (1943).
The Old Dark House (1932, James Whale)
Bill Condon's excellent Gods and Monsters (1998) went a long way in affirming the artistry behind James Whale's work, but no force on earth will convince anyone that his 17 other films are more interesting than his four horror films. Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) are better known, but The Old Dark House is his most personal work, full of his odd humor -- a comfortable cross between dry and flamboyant. In this one, an amazing cast spends a rainy night in the title house, dealing with everything from a scary mute butler (Boris Karloff) to a mysterious figure locked in one of the upstairs rooms. Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, Ernest Thesiger, Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart (yes, the one from Titanic) star. Several years ago Stuart recorded a wonderful DVD commentary track for this film. Incidentally, 1932 was an amazing year for horror. Aside from Vampyr and The Old Dark House, fans got to see The Mask of Fu Manchu, Freaks, The Mummy, White Zombie and Murders in the Rue Morgue.
The Black Cat (1934)
At the time, it was known as the first team-up of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but nowadays, it's regarded as a bizarre, early masterpiece from "B" movie maven Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer had recently arrived from Germany, where he had worked as an art director for Murnau, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch, and so he knew a thing or two about Expressionist lighting. That, combined with the truly shocking sets and the unbridled cruelty lurking just beneath the story, makes this compulsory Halloween viewing. (Ulmer's later Bluebeard, from 1944, is also highly recommended.)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
In 1942, the highly educated Val Lewton somehow found himself in charge of "B" movies at RKO, the studio that bankrolled Orson Welles' early efforts. He used his creative freedom to create a series of nine superior horror films (and two other, equally good non-horror films) very nearly unmatched in movie history. All nine have been released in a DVD box set, but this one -- directed by Jacques Tourneur -- is a personal favorite. It doesn't really deal with zombies as we know them today, and tells more of a voodoo story, but few other films use moody shadows, music, sound effects and silence to more masterly effect. The sequence in which the hired nurse (Frances Dee) creeps through the head-high cornfields to get to the midnight ritual pushed new boundaries. Tourneur was the most talented of Lewton's stable of directors; he also made Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1942). Years later, after Lewton's death, Tourneur made the very Lewton-like Night of the Demon (1957), also highly recommended.
Black Sunday (1960, Mario Bava)
Former cinematographer Bava is better known for his astonishing color films, but with this, his official directorial debut, he proved he also had the stuff for black-and-white. The outlandish plot stars sexy Barbara Steele as a centuries-old witch who returns to exact her revenge. As was the custom for low-budget films in Italy, Bava often used an international cast, and each actor spoke his or her own language. The final film would then be dubbed into whatever language was desired. As a result, there is no definitive "Italian" version of Black Sunday, or indeed of many of Bava's other films. This "cheapness" is probably the main reason Bava is not considered among the great masters of world cinema.
The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise also came from Val Lewton's stable, and he paid homage to his former boss with this giant-sized, expensive, prestigious film, shot in Cinemascope. (Wise had just won a Best Director Oscar for West Side Story.) Like William Castle's similar House on Haunted Hill (1959), it employs the usual spending-the-night-in-a-haunted-house plot, but it set new standards for physical, cinematic terror, making brilliant use of modern, complex audio and the deeper, wider frame. Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn co-star. Repertory houses usually program this with Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), another elegant, black-and-white Cinemascope chiller. Avoid the lame 1999 remake.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
When George A. Romero made this, his feature debut, black-and-white film was actually more of a budgetary choice than an aesthetic one. But he uses it like a master, creating odd, claustrophobic close-ups and shots with depths that fade away into the darkness. Romero established herein all the zombie rules and regulations still followed today, and simultaneously raised the bar on intelligent, character-driven films with horror elements. The action in this film has little to do with zombies, but focuses on the people in the house, showing their true colors in an emergency situation. Few horror films are better, smarter, scarier or more effective. And no horror film has a better ending. Though Romero dreamed of making other types of films, he eventually led a career consisting mainly of fright films, many of them quite good: Martin (1977), Creepshow (1982), Monkey Shines (1988), The Dark Half (1993), and of course the rest of the "Dead" series, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005).