Vampires don’t always creep out from the shadows of the Carpathian mountains or stalk through Transylvania hunting the next human artery to sink their teeth into. Try Berlin.
Fallen angels, deranged minds, and malevolent paranormal entities have all emerged from the cinematic imagination of the country that spawned German expressionist horror along with bratwurst, beer, Volkswagens, and Oktoberfest. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu have risen from the grave to be some of the most iconic films in the genre. Murderers and bloodsuckers in black and white rely on the interplay of light and shadow, as well as everything that is hinted at onscreen and left to the imagination, to make them into menacing figures they have morphed into.
Germany’s take on past horrors like medieval witch trials and a turn-of-the-century serial killer have also left a mark (of the devil or otherwise). They test your limits of gore tolerance by showing these events in all their raw brutality, with every sick premeditation and instrument of torture. You may need a lager or two, because some scenes are almost too gruesome for the internet.
Keep your lederhosen on when marathoning these 13 German monsters of horror, because someone may paint a masterpiece with your blood if you die of fright.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
What is really scary about this German Expressionist horroshow isn’t just the menacing shadows or the murdering somnambulist Cesare being controlled like a marionette by the sinister Dr. Caligari—though you may end up second-guessing your own shadow after watching it. The entire film is actually a metaphor for the mentality of the WWI-era German government, with Caligari as a symbol of totalitarianism while Cesare is an eerie reflection of soldiers conditioned to commit atrocities and explain horrific actions away as following orders. There is also a question of sanity versus insanity (and what either of those really means) that weighs on the story more heavily than a straitjacket. No wonder The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often argued to be the first true horror film.
Also called Necronomicon despite its lack of tentacles, Succubus puts the spotlight on a nightclub shock artist who performs (supposedly) erotic S&M murder shows for an audience who has no idea she may be mind-controlled by the devil. Hazy and surrealistic imagery is swirled with bizarre events involving a dog costume and a strange game of Twister among other things. Mannequins that seem to move on their own surround Lorna in what is arguably one of the most unsettling scenes. The uncut version of this movie escalated to such gruesome heights of violence that it needed to be heavily edited before it could haunt theaters. Even after the final version was released, it was rated X—which then meant no admission for anyone under 16.
Mark of the Devil (1970)
So brutal that barf bags were given out to the audience in theaters, Mark of the Devil was seized by the claws of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 in the UK and confiscated during the wave of movie violence paranoia otherwise known as the video nasty panic. You can’t really blame them when the plot revolves around a witch hunt featuring Medieval torture like, oh, ripping someone’s tongue out. Even more terrifying is that the methods of torment depicted in the film weren’t just invented for shock value. Suspected “witches” were put through a battery of torments including branding, stretching, prodding with needles, and many more other gruesome tests designed to extract a confession. That doesn’t include the punishments for those proven guilty by these questionable methods.
He may not have horns or cloven feet or be exceptionally hairy, but the villain in Laurin is the humanoid version of Krampus if there ever was one. Imagine being nine years old and being tormented by dreams and hallucinations of some monster carrying a sack while children screamed in the night. This is what a traumatized Laurin has to go through when the worst demon she should be fighting at nine years old is long division. How she manages to keep from losing it may be the most haunting mystery in this movie. That creepy bedroom that glows red with candlelight should be enough to send anyone running even before seeing the corpse laid out on the mattress. Of course, the funeral music in the soundtrack just tells you that something is about to go horribly wrong.
Vampires aren’t portrayed as mystical creatures that may or may not sparkle in the sun in this famously unauthorized film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which opened the coffin lid on a scary court battle). Count Orlock cowers in the type of dank, musty castle that you would expect the undead to inhabit and is exposed for being the pathetic creature he really is. Even in the dark ages before CGI and special effects, the shadow of the Count creeping up the stairs with one claw almost reaching for his prey has still managed to burn itself into the brains of horror fans. Never mind Orlok’s infamous makeup, which created one of those faces that will forever flash in your subconscious as you’re trying to sleep at night.
Bloody Moon (1981)
Don’t ever go out on a date with anyone wearing a mask. If he isn’t Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, he’s the homicidal Miguel who will stab you to death with scissors (possibly even worse than getting hacked with a machete). Miguel hides his disfigured face behind that mask like Jason and is institutionalized after the murder like Michael Myers was after killing his sister. The eerie similarities don’t stop there. He stalks women (remind you of anything?) and hangs the bodies of his victims upside down (remind you of anything else?). You’re probably not human if you don’t shudder at that scene when a closet door swings open to reveal a corpse casually hanging there like a dress. This deranged film is also crawling with snakes, fire, incest, a chainsaw and some sort of Medieval torture device.
The last person (if you can even call him human) you would ever want being within a thousand miles of where you live is a child serial killer who paints museum-quality art with the blood of his victims and considers himself superior to Jack the Riper and Charles Manson. Don’t eat for at least three hours before watching this movie, because the clip of him stirring it in a cup like paint and brushing it on watercolor paper will make you want to heave. Investigating this psychopath could lead to possible insanity. He is so inherently evil that he can convince you to commit the most unthinkable act ever if you fall under his trance. That is just what psychopaths do. No wonder you shouldn’t trust anyone named after the Angel Gabriel.
Another iteration of vampires that don’t sparkle, this movie’s bloodsucker skulks around in the guise of a village doctor who is clearly looking to give his patients the opposite of a blood transfusion. Like Nosferatu, he also lives in a hulking mansion that appears to be in a considerable state of decay. His idea of a skull as household décor should make you suspicious if his attempting to “medicate” a gravely ill victim with poison doesn’t. The stark shadowplay in this film is the era’s answer to SFX that still manages to freeze your blood. You will continue to have nightmares about that dream sequence when Allan Grey sees his own corpse surrounded by wilting bouquets in a coffin. Ominous church bells will echo in your sleep.
We Are the Night (2010)
Side effects of being bitten by a vampire include sunburn, instant healing (even if you burn your own eyeball), and an insatiable appetite for human blood. You can take your blood in a wineglass, beaker or shot glass. It might also make you sadistic enough to slice your victim’s throat with a piece of paper until you finally hit the jugular. Director Dennis Gansel was so sick of seeing Dracula that he wanted to bring a more modern version of the countess Carmilla to life. This film takes living fast to the extreme with endless parties in luxury hotels and a stolen Lamborghini painted with some badass flames. If that club scene looks enticing, it wasn’t for the actors, who had to film in an old bathhouse with an unheated pool. Chilling.
Bela Kiss: Prologue (2013)
In case you don’t know about Bela Kiss, he was the ironically named Hungarian horror of the early 20th century, strangling at least 24 people and doing a Dahmer by shoving the bodies in huge metal drums. The only difference was that Kiss filled those drums with alcohol instead of corrosive acid since he preferred to pickle corpses rather than dissolve the evidence. He was also more of a vampire than a cannibal since puncture marks were found on the victims’ necks. The stench of death was how his whereabouts were discovered (much like Dahmer’s)—except he’d vanished by then. His menacing presence, whether in the flesh or the dark corners of the imagination, overshadows this blood-spattered movie, messing with your head in ways you never thought possible.
If Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project freaked you out, this found-footage monstrosity is pretty much that in a haunted castle. Ghost hunters who want to capture some paranormal action jump at every creak, moan and vanishing piece of video equipment. You know there must be something incorporeal among you when she starts sleepwalking and having uncontrolled spasms. When she starts dreaming of the thing that supposedly lurks in the castle and experiencing disturbing visions of you being covered in blood, you may finally be convinced if you didn’t see something unnatural take over your computer screen first. Expect screams and more screams, but at least the constant arguing that haunts Blair Witch is replaced by a heavy tension that will make you leery of abandoned buildings.
While this black-and-white thriller may not be splattered in blood, it still managed to inject me with primal fear when I first saw it at a MOMA screening some years ago. The unidentified child killer that stalks Berlin echoes Stephen King’s Pennywise in everything but the creepy clown costume and the whole immortal entity thing. He even buys one of his victims—what else—a balloon. Like Pennywise, he seems to get off on leaving blatant clues in his wake, except he prefers to send letters teasing the police rather than tossing body parts to the curb. Especially unnerving is how the film opens with children playing an elimination game outside their apartment while they remain oblivious that the murderer is out there playing it for real.
Premutos: The Fallen Angel (1997)
You know the fallen angel who came before Lucifer is going to be even less angelic than his successor. Except his son sort of vanishes. The “sort of” here is significant, because when a random guy starts having mysterious flashbacks of war and pestilence that he couldn’t possibly have lived long enough to remember, his Faustian curiosity drives him to a book and bottle of something suspicious that both should have never been opened. When you unearth things that were supposed to be left to collect dust, you might morph into a beast who rallies his zombie forces to resurrect his demon father. There will be blood, fire, lightning and interspecies romantic encounters. This is a warning to anyone who thinks the dead always stay dead.