Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Little Retro-Horror





Try as I might, I have great difficulty finding much to like about the horror movies of today.   Perhaps its a generational thing, but the whole genre for me began to decline when `horror films’ became synonymous with `slasher movies’.


Gone were the brooding atmospheric castles of Dracula, or the creepy House on Haunted Hill – to be replaced by an endless stream of scantily clad teenagers who end up impaled or otherwise butchered by some hockey-mask wearing maniac.


Zombies – which certainly appeared in movies going back to the 1930s – became brain-munching hordes of undead, taken down only by a bloody headshot. 


Its not as if the horror movies of the golden age of Hollywood were all great.  They weren’t.   In fact, some were awful  (and we’ll visit some of those in my next blog).    But most are – in my estimation – better than 90% of the dreck being released today.


If you base your appreciation of horror movies on how many gouts of blood geyser up onto the screen, or how many topless actresses run terrified through the woods, then the movies below probably will seem slow and even boring.  


But at the time of their release, many of these movies were the tops in creeps, and for those of us appreciative of such things, still  have much to recommend them.


We’ll go in chronological order this time, and start with perhaps the most famous silent horror movie of them all, The Phantom of the Opera.



Even if you’ve never watched a silent movie – or have and found them wanting – you should give this 85 year-old masterpiece a try.  It features the incomparable Lon Chaney (who’s son went on to act in horror movies as Lon Chaney Jr.), otherwise known as The Man of a Thousand Faces.




The Phantom of the Opera - Universal Pictures





Moving ahead to talkies – which demand less rapt attention than do silent films – we get this very early Bela Lugosi offering from 1932: White Zombie.


Zombies of the 1930s and 1940s (Pre-George Romero) weren’t the flesh hungry pests of today.  They were victims, controlled by an evil spell cast by a voodoo priest or a serum employed by a mad scientist.


White Zombie is long on atmosphere, and admittedly short on action.  But it is a treat to see Bela before he fell into a series of dreadful movie parodies of himself.


White Zombie (1932)




Moving ahead a year we get another early effort from a poverty row studio Majestic Pictures, with a horror-mystery offering called The Vampire Bat (1933).


Residents of the village of Kleinschloss are being found drained of blood, and the only explanation that seems to fit points to Vampirism.     


Look for a pre-King Kong Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill as the town doctor, and Melyvn Douglas as the police chief in this little gem.


Atwill would famously be caught  up in a `morals’ scandal in 1943 following what was described as `an orgy’ in his home (he received 5 years probation for perjured testimony).   The big studios wouldn’t touch him after that, and he died a few years later of pneumonia.



While some may feel let down by the ending, this movie provides plenty of atmosphere and creeps along the way.



The Vampire Bat (1933)





One of the most prolific producer-directors of the horror genre during the late 1950s was William Castle, whose legacy includes The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), and Mr. Sardonicus (1961).   Castle wasn’t above installing `joy buzzers’ into the theatre seats to jolt his audiences at the appropriate moment.


Earlier in his career, Castle worked in radio, and directed a number of studio westerns.


The best of his horror movies is arguably House on Haunted Hill (1959), where Vincent Price offers a handful of house guests $10,000 each if they’ll spend the night in a haunted house.



House on Haunted Hill - William Castle



Jumping ahead another decade, we find the two veterans of British Horror - Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – aboard a trans-siberian railway train, along with an evil entity that jumps from one host to the next.


Look for Telly Savalas as Captain Karzan in this well done horror outing.



Horror Express - Benmar Productions



Next time, we’ll look at some of the so-bad-they-are-almost-good horror and sci-fi movies of the past.  

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