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The Top 10 Horror Films from the Public Domain

Updated on November 28, 2014

If you've ever come across a box set of horror films such as "Horror Classics 50 Movie Pack Collection", "Tales of Terror - 200 Classic Horror Movies", or "Horror Collection 250 Movies" you may wonder how they can afford to get that many films in one place without the cost being in the hundreds. The answer to that is that they are all public domain titles that are free for them to distribute. This may seem like a great deal and to some degree it is until you actually start watching some of them. You will find a large number of terrible and painfully dull films. However there are some classics that became public domain that are featured in some of these sets. Here are my picks for ten of these that can be considered "classics" and are worth a watch


White Zombie

The 1932 film "White Zombie" features Bela Lugosi a year after his iconic role in Dracula(1931) playing a voodoo master in Haiti. White Zombie is significant for being the first feature length zombie film back when zombies were voodoo slaves before George A. Romero changed the public perception of what a zombie is three and a half decades later. Lugosi's character, Murder Legendre, is a voodoo master that runs a sugar mill run by his voodoo slaves and assists Monsieur Beaumont in separating his love, Madeleine, from her fiancé who are planned to be married by turning her into a zombie. Doing this will make Madeleine's fiancé believe she is dead and therefore open for Beaumont to have as his own but Legendre has others intentions for her. The film is also known for being the inspiration for Rob Zombie's band of the same name.


Dementia 13

Dementia, 13 released in 1963, is the first feature length film by director Francis Ford Coppola who also wrote the screenplay. This Roger Corman production is about a woman named Louise Haloran who following the death of her husband Richard by a heart attack hides his death and tries to get part of his mother's will which she cannot obtain if her husband is dead. While visiting her dead husband's family estate in Ireland an unknown killer begins killing off family member's with an axe. Though low budget the film still manages to display effective atmosphere and is considered by many to be one of the forefathers of the slasher film genre.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

This silent Paramount production from 1920 is one of the first adaptions of the novel "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson. Though numerous other silent film versions of the story were made this is the one that stood out and is most well remembered. The story is about Dr. Jekyll who believes that every man has two sides and wants to experiment with this by creating a potion that by drinking it causes his evil side to come out. His evil monstrous side he calls Mr. Hyde which he goes back and forth to with the use of potions. However, he becomes more unstable every time he becomes Mr. Hyde to the point that Jekyll can no longer control it.


The Little Shop of Horrors

In 1960 Roger Corman directed this horror/ black comedy is the story of a floral assistant who raises a crossbred plant that grows to feed on the flesh of humans. Like many other Roger Corman films this was made on a low-budget in a short period of time using leftover sets from a previous production. The unique blend of horror and black comedy is what led this one to cult status and was picked up by distribution companies spreading its popularity. In 1982 the story was adapted into a stage musical production which inspired a film adaption of this in 1986 starring Rick Moranis.


Carnival of Souls

In this 1962 film a woman named Mary is riding in a car with two friends when they are challenged to a drag race by some men in another car. This does not go well for the women as their car crashes off the side of a bridge as they speed across it. The police search for several hours until Mary emerges from the water with a memory loss of how she got out. She returns to her normal life in Utah but is frequented by a ghoulish pale-faced man and keeps hearing organ music whenever she turns on a radio. When Mary tells others of what she is hearing they assume she is just insane and slowly loses her mind as the man and soon more ghoulish figures keep appearing to her. The film features an innovative twist for its time and has become somewhat of a cult classic because of its haunting imagery and score. A remake was made in 1998 though only loosely related and was produced by Wes Craven.


The Last Man On Earth

Vincent Price stars in this adaption of Richard Matheson's novel "I Am Legend" which has also been adapted into 2 other films in 1971(Omega Man starring Charlton Heston) and 2007(I Am Legend starring Will Smith). Price's character, Dr. Robert Morgan, is the last survivor after a virus wipes out humanity while either killing them or turning them into vampires. By night he is forced to board himself up in his home but by day he hunts the vampires while they are helpless. Having lost everyone he's every known his only company is a dog who also ends up dieing until he finds a woman who also seems to have survived the plague. Under-appreciated and lesser known than the other two movie versions of the novel this is the most faithful to its source material and overall a solid Vincent Price film.


House On Haunted Hill

This 1959 horror film also features Vincent Price as a millionaire named Frederick Loren who along with his wife, Annabelle, invite five guests to spend the night at their haunted hilltop mansion. If anyone manages to spend the whole night they are rewarded with $10,000 but must stay the whole night after the doors are locked at midnight. Paranoia soon sets in as Loren tells his guests of how different people had died there over the years. Tensions rise as Annabelle tells the guests that her husband is psychotic and soon disappears with images of her hung body start appearing to one of the female guests. The film delivers creepy vibes with only limited actual imagery or any ghost of any kind on-screen. The film was a hit upon release due to effective marketing and has since become a classic inspiring many other horror directors. A remake was released in 1999 which pales in comparison and doesn't live up to the original.


Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney Sr. stars in this 1925 silent film adaption on the novel "Le Fantôme de l'Opéra" published in 1910. It has since been made into numerous horror film adaptions as well as eventually receiving a musical stage adaption and a film based on that. The Phantom is a mysterious, disfigured ,cloaked figure that lives in the catacombs below the Paris Opera House and when he develops a fascination with one of the performers, he kidnaps her and takes her to his underground lair. This is considered one of the most influential films in both silent horror and in the career of Lon Chaney as this may be the master of makeup's most iconic role. Despite its success the film fell into the public domain after not having its copyright renewed by Universal in 1953.


Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero's 1968 film "Night of the Living Dead" is revolutionary for creating what the modern zombie film is. This is the film that changed zombies from being voodoo slaves to the flesh eating undead that we normally think of as zombies. The story starts out with a woman named Barbra and her brother visiting their father's grave. Barbra is attacked by a man they encounter and her brother tries to fight him off but his killed in the struggle when his head hits a gravestone. In a panic Barbra gets in her car but ends up crashing it so she goes to seek shelter in a nearby farmhouse. More survivors show up followed by a number of the undead and pretty soon they are on the defense against a horde of the undead with radio telecasts occasionally updating the characters and viewers of what the overall situation is. This film was a major success at the box office and was later turned into a series of films taking place in the same universe such as Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead. It has since had two remakes in 1990 and 2006. Despite the financial success the film fell into the public domain due to distribution errors.



F.W. Murnau's 1922 German Expressionist film has stood the test of time and can still be considered one of or even the most creepy vampire film in its depiction of Count Orlok(played by Max Shreck). For the most part this is a Dracula rip-off as the rights to that novel were denied by the Stoker estate so Murnau changed certain plot elements and character names around in an effort to beat this. This effort failed and all copies were ordered to be destroyed though at least one survived which is why it is still around today. Even compared to other Dracula interpretations this took a darker approach to that character. Count Orlok is in no way a handsome or romantic figure but a pale-albino with ratlike corpse features. A remake was released in 1979 starring Klaus Kinski and was actually a some-what faithful remake that stands out on it's own right.It was also the inspiration for the 2000 film "Shadow of the Vampire" where Max Shreck is said to have been an actual vampire.

Which of the films mentioned do you think is the best?

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