While it differs from one country to the next, once an artwork such as a film or book passes a certain age, it moves into the public domain. This means that anyone can watch, show or modify and rework these media without permission. There are thousands and thousands of films that have now moved into the public domain and a massive collection of these are preserved at publicdomainmovies.net.
The site is very barebones and doesn’t have a built-in search function, so we used Google’s site search powers to find 10 of the best classic public domain movies any film buff should have on their list. Also, for some reason, the SSL certificate has expired, which isn’t a big deal in an of itself, but don’t type any personal info on the site.
Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Most of you reading this are probably familiar with the 1986 comedy of the same name starring Rick Moranis. However this 1960 original film directed by Roger Corman deserves as much praise.
It tells the story of a hapless florist who cultivates an intelligent man-eating plant. What starts out as a creepy curiosity meant to draw people into a failing shop ends up being an unrelenting nightmare that demands human sacrifice. Strangely, that works surprisingly well for a comedy premise!
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
If an eccentric millionaire offered you a small fortune so spend a night in a haunted house, would you? In this classic spooky movie starring the legendary Vincent Price, five people do exactly that. As you can imagine, it turns out to be a bad idea. One that quickly leads to murder, mayhem, mystery and maybe some actual ghosts.
White Zombie (1932)
Today the Zombie genre is (ironically) alive and kicking, but back in 1932 White Zombie became what is widely considered the first zombie feature film. The film isn’t really something modern zombie fans would recognize. Instead it depicts the idea of a zombie more in line with the traditional Voodoo practices that inspired the idea in film.
This movie is also notable for starring horror film superstar Bela Lugosi as the evil zombie master, who systematically transforms his victim into a zombie over the course of the film.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Based on the novel I Am Legend, this film adaptation of the book predates the Will Smith version by a whopping 43 years. This is another cult film starring Vincent Price and tells the story of a future 1968 where all humans have been turned into mindless vampiric creatures. That is, everyone but Dr. Robert Morgan. The doctor hunts vampires by day, when they are held back by sunlight, and hides from them in his house by night.
The general plot and events are quite similar to the 2007 remake, but it’s fascinating to see the two different interpretations. The Last Man on Earth is well worth watching in its own right as well, although it didn’t get a great reception when released, today it’s a genre classic.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Battleship Potemkin is quite possibly one of the most historically significant films ever made. The product of legendary filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, it’s a movie that just about every film student is forced to watch and study at some point. This silent film tells the story of a mutiny on the Prince Potemkin, a battleship involved in the 1905 Russian revolution.
Many of the visual storytelling methods we see in film today, notably the montage, were pioneered by Eisenstein and showcased in this film.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
While White Zombie might be the first zombie film, it was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead that today defines the genre.This movie is as gripping now as it was in 1968, with a horde of undead zombies laying siege to a group of survivors holed up in a farmhouse. Every modern zombie film and TV series can trace its roots back to this one movie.
Violent, tense and horrifying the film garnered some criticism when first released, although it was financially successful. Today it’s the cult-classic reference for a massively popular style of horror film. No one can call themselves a true zombie movie fan if they haven’t watched this at least once.
Jungle Book (1942)
Most people are familiar with the animated Disney Adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, but there’s a less famous 1942 live adaptation which is definitely worth a watch. Based on a screenplay adaptation of the book written in the 1890s, Jungle Book is a big-budget TechniColor film directed and produced by the Hungarian Korda brothers.
The story doesn’t really diverge from the one that everyone knows, but there’s a charm and authenticity to this film version that’s missing from the modern live action version. If you like a good classic adventure film, or are a fan of the other Jungle Book versions, this is an essential watch.
The Lost World (1925)
The go-to film for prehistoric beast action is Jurassic Park and rightly so. However, that movie (and the book it’s based on) undoubtedly owes some measure of debt to The Lost World. The second Jurassic Park film was after all titled The Lost World: Jurassic Park and contained scenes inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel.
If you wanted to see a T-Rex rampage on film before Steven Spielberg did it in 1997 then this 1925 film might have been the next best thing. Well, perhaps not, but this black and white classic silent film wowed audiences when it released with it’s stop-motion dino battles. Today it’s both historically important and also a great yarn
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera is most famous today as the superlative stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and co. However, that musical may very well never have come to be if not for the classic silent movie adaptation. Not because the film was especially good, but because it made the public aware of Gaston Leroux’s novel.
While there’s no spoken dialogue in the film, the score is still worth a listen. One of the most notable facts about this film is that the star Lon Chaney was responsible for his own facial prosthetic. The exact appearance of the deformed titular phantom was kept a secret until the film was released to the public.
This movie is famous for its production problems, massive budget and the fact that it had no fewer than three re-shoots, with multiple directors abandoning ship. While the movie was poorly received at release, today it’s considered the second best adaptation of the book. So if you’re a fan of the 1986 musical (and who isn’t?) then definitely watch this version.
Gulliver’s Travels (1939)
While most classic animated movies anyone remembers from the 20th century were mainly created by Disney, other studios and companies definitely produced a few great films. Fleischer studios is one of these notable animation houses and Gulliver’s Travels was a film released just three years before the studio would go out of business.
Gulliver’s Travels focuses mainly on adapting the part of Gulliver’s story dealing with Lilliput and the tiny people that live there. It’s only the second every American animated feature film, following Disney’s Snow White. This makes it an essential watch for any animation buff, not to mention that this is a gorgeous handmade animated film worth seeing in its own right.
That’s it for our list of the best public domain films, but there are thousands of them and “best” is very subjective. So which films would you recommend to the rest of us? Let us know in the comments below. If you feel like watching something a little more “this century” check out the best free movie apps to watch movies online.