Classic Hollywood—an era of film that produced some of the most iconic cinema that we’re still treasuring today. All those musicals and dramas and screwball comedies galore! But what about the horror and dark fantasy?
Of course, we got the Universal Monsters and the Val Lewton movies from that era, but they’re not the only ones. There are some classic films that have managed to fly under the radar of horror and fantasy fans for decades.
So for your obscure viewing pleasure, here are four underrated movies from Classic Hollywood that you should add to your streaming queue immediately.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)
A Technicolor fever dream of a film, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman was directed in 1951 by Albert Lewin and—perhaps just as notably—was shot by acclaimed cinematographer Jack Cardiff who was well known for his Powell-Pressburger collaborations.
Starring Ava Gardner in one of the best roles of her career, this lush film is set in 1930 Spain where devil-may-care Pandora lives by her own rules in a gorgeous house in a gorgeous city all while wearing gorgeous clothes. Men want to marry her and are even literally dying for her, but she goes her own way. That is, until a mysterious ship that might be the legendary Flying Dutchman shows up near the shore, and she becomes enthralled with its elusive captain. Add in some ghostly mystique and plenty of high melodrama, and you have one truly fascinating film.
My main complaint about Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is that James Mason’s glum captain Hendrik doesn’t deserve the ethereal and free-spirited Pandora. But provided you can get past that obvious oversight, the film is a beautifully shot ode to the classic era, and it truly looks like nothing else of its time. A spooky love story for the win.
On the Beach (1959)
Another unsung Ava Gardner film, On the Beach might just be the best apocalypse movie you’ve never heard of. And it’s a real shame that more horror fans aren’t aware of this film, because it’s not like any other end-of-the-world tale you’ve ever seen. Again, this one isn’t outright horror; instead, On the Beach oozes with existential dread as the last remaining pockets of civilization face their grim and unrelenting fate.
Starring Gregory Peck, Anthony Perkins, Fred Astaire, and of course Gardner, you won’t get any triumphant third-act montages or over-the-top world-saving efforts a la Armageddon. That’s just not the kind of film this is. On the contrary, it’s a movie about the small moments at the end of a civilization—a driver sitting in his race car, a pair of lovers embracing on a last trip, two parents doing the only humane thing they can for their child—and in doing so, it becomes arguably the most haunting apocalypse film I’ve ever seen.
Give it a watch—provided you can find it on a streaming channel—and see if it haunts you the same way.
Corridor of Mirrors
May the gods bless the Criterion Channel and the Criterion Collection for rediscovering so many offbeat films and making them readily available to cinema fans.
Melodrama to the max, Corridor of Mirrors is such a strange and surreal little movie and one that people so rarely discuss in film circles. The story follows Mifanwy (played by Edana Romney who also co-wrote the screenplay), a young woman who becomes entangled with an eccentric older man who owns a sort of funhouse mansion dedicated to his obsessive devotion to reincarnated lovers and Renaissance Italy. It’s just as weird as it sounds.
Corridor of Mirrors isn’t necessarily horror or dark fantasy, but it definitely has the aura of both, and with a darkly fairy tale setting, it’s absolutely worth seeking out. Brimming with shades of Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast, this is a bizarre tale of love gone sour that will stick with you long after the final frame. Also, look for horror legend Christopher Lee in a small role that served as his film acting debut.
Like the other films on this list, Blanche Fury isn’t conventional horror per se; it’s more of a gothic thriller set on an ancestral estate with lots of ancestral secrets. But since there’s a supposed curse at the center of it all that might just be coming true, it’s definitely got its fair share of horror elements, including a supporting turn from Hammer Films favorite Michael Gough.
The eponymous Blanche Fury, played by Valerie Hobson, finds herself moving to a vast property with her extended family, including her cousin Gough who wants to marry her. Blanche, however, has her eye set on the brooding caretaker who should be the rightful owner of the place (Stewart Granger in all his surly glory). Diabolical scheming ensures.
Technicolor noirs are a rare thing indeed, and noirs set in the so-called gaslight era are even more unusual, which makes Blanche Fury unlike anything else in Classic Hollywood. Think Double Indemnity for the Victorian set. Bold, beautiful, and absolutely worth your time.