(This blog was originally titled “Five Things I Love about… Classic Horror Films,” but I decided on another approach.)
With the emphasis on ghosts, witches, monsters, and other things supernatural, October is a fantasy lover’s dream. When October comes, I know it’s time to turn to my DVD collection of classic horror movies for some quality entertainment. That makes October my favorite month of the year.
I have a love/hate relationship with the horror genre. On the one hand, I loathe to my very core the “slasher films” in which casts of nubile teenagers are set up for indiscriminate slaughter in the most gruesome fashion. Such movies are distressingly unimaginative, not to mention misogynistic, as most of the victims are young women and their painfully protracted death scenes qualify as torture porn. Yet classic black-and-white horror films intrigue me with their play of light and shadow, their aura of the unexpected. They aren’t slaughter-fests; in most of these movies the body count, at least of recognizable characters, is fairly low. They have ideas at their root. Plus, they feature some wonderful performances.
Five classic horror films I love:
The Mummy (1932).
Boris Karloff isn’t just one of my favorite horror movie actors; he’s one of my favorite actors, period. 1931’s Frankenstein made him a star, and with 1932’s The Old Dark House his star rose a little higher, but in both these films he played mute characters. By contrast, in The Mummy he makes full use of his slightly lisping and wonderfully resonant baritone voice. Unlike the mindless priest-controlled bandaged corpse who shambles through the “Mummy” movies of the 1940s, Karloff’s millennia-year-old undead Egyptian thinks and acts for himself, and he’s a fascinating character. The movie does have flaws, most notably the pacing. My husband doesn’t care much for it because he finds it moves too slowly, and I can’t say he’s wrong. Yet I get caught up in the idea of a 3,700-year-old man suddenly reborn into a modern world he couldn’t possibly recognize in any way. What would such a man live for? Why, the same thing he died for — forbidden love.
(One side-note on The Mummy: I was watching this movie back in 1995, at the beginning of my Auburn University days, the night Hurricane Opal blew through town. I went to the bathroom during a commercial break, and while I was in that windowless room with the door shut, the power went out. The “flashback-to-ancient-Egypt” scene, with its dirge-like score, had just aired. I was trapped in total darkness with that music in my head. I won’t forget that experience anytime soon.)
The Body Snatcher (1945).
A case can be made for Targets (1968), as well as for his voice work in 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but many would assert that the great Karloff gives his best performance in this grim historical drama about a grave robber who resorts to murder so he can continue supplying a renowned doctor with cadavers and thus maintain his diabolical hold over the man. (Ubiquitous classic-film character actor Henry Daniell, who plays the doctor, also gives an excellent performance.) One of the masterworks of producer Val Lewton, directed by Robert Wise, the movie has atmosphere to burn. It also includes one of the most chilling murder scenes in the genre’s history, one that takes place entirely in the shadows (we hear the crime rather than see it) and is over very quickly, all the more unnerving for its brevity. This one scene offers an exemplum of why the classic black-and-white horror film is ten times more compelling than the modern slasher film.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Oddly enough, this sequel to Frankenstein is more faithful than the original film to the letter and the spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel. The moving sequence involving the Monster and a blind hermit (brilliantly parodied in Mel Brooks’ 1974 masterpiece Young Frankenstein) has its roots in Shelley, though the relationship works out differently in the novel. The movie also includes a bit straight out of Shelley, in which the Monster rescues a shepherdess from drowning and is rewarded by her terrified screams. Yet what really distinguishes this movie is director James Whale’s black sense of humor, best displayed in the character of Dr. Pretorius, played with maximum camp by Ernest Thesiger. He has a bitterly dark soul, yet he’s the only (sighted) person not to react in terror to the Monster’s approach. The movie is funny in the right places, but the brief encounter between the Monster and his newborn bride is downright heartbreaking. Again, unlike the modern slasher film, the classic black-and-white horror film can make an audience care.
The Invisible Man (1933).
Any true classic movie buff should admire this one at least a little bit, since it introduced the public to Claude Rains, who appeared to faultless advantage in Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Now, Voyager, Notorious, and countless other classics. Rains was James Whale’s only choice to play mad scientist Jack Griffin, who is turned invisible by experimental drugs but then discovers he can commit crimes almost with impunity. Universal Studios was pushing Whale to cast Karloff. I don’t doubt that Boris would have been awesome, yet thank God Whale won the battle. Equipped only with his unique voice, Rains turns in a marvelously manic performance. He’s the central character, with no stalwart hero going up against him. We see society grapple with him, but a part of us can’t help being on his side, since he’s by far the most dynamic individual around. He is brought down for the greater good, yet we feel something tragic in his loss.
The Uninvited (1944)
Can a horror movie be romantic? Actually, yes, as this film demonstrates. It has all the right horror-movie trappings: a haunted house, an abundance of dark secrets, an insane asylum that’s terrifying in its squeaky-cleanliness, beautiful light-and-shadow interaction, and the threats of madness and death. Yet it also has a lush, lyrical music score by Victor Young to set a romantic tone, and it has Ray Milland, perhaps the most charismatic of all horror-movie heroes, paying court to the beautiful, mysterious Gail Russell. Milland’s equally charming sister, Ruth Hussey, is also a welcome presence. So often the “good guys” in horror films are bland ciphers, but these are horror movie heroes we can actually root for.
A few runners-up:
The Wolf Man (1941). This film establishes the big-screen werewolf mythology and features memorable performances by Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, and the priceless Claude Rains.
The Walking Dead (1936). Karloff is at his most sympathetic here, playing a wrongly convicted and executed man brought back to life. This one has a higher body count than most horror films of the day, but here the victims have it coming.
The Devil-Doll (1936). Lionel Barrymore does the revenge thing disguised as an elderly lady whose “dolls” he can psychically animate to do his bidding.
Dead of Night (1946) and The Curse of the Demon (1958), two hauntingly atmospheric horror films from England.