Film 101—Horror III: Monster Mash

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This installation of my classic horror series focuses on those Universal movie monsters we all know and love, the ones that defined the genre in the 1930s and 1940s. Oddly enough, I thought I had seen some of these movies but, watching them now, I think I had only ever seen parts of them. I can’t think of a better testament to how much they have permeated our culture.

For some reason, despite being mostly against processed foods, my mother let us eat this. Also, Freakies. Remember Freakies?

For some reason, despite being mostly against processed foods, my mother let us eat these from time to time. Also, Freakies. Remember Freakies?

Rooted in folktales and superstition, these monsters all represent a key theme in horror: metamorphosis. Some move from the world of the dead to the living (Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy), others transform from human into the antihuman (vampires, werewolves). Whether the cause is supernatural or manmade, these monsters represent a clear violation of the boundaries of nature as we see them.

Count Dracula
Perhaps the best known of these classic monsters is Count Dracula. As I wrote in The Silent Scream, Nosferatu (1922) was a brilliant adaptation of Bram Stoker’s tale (despite being unauthorized) and I was eager to see how Universal’s version would hold up. Unfortunately, Dracula (1931) was extremely disappointing. It is so hard for me to believe this is by the same director as The Unknown and Freaks. It starts off promising enough, throwing you right into the middle of the action in the Carpathians; however, the switching out of Harker for Renfield in these early scenes means that it is hard to buy into the stakes (!) later on when Lucy is threatened. There were certain touches I liked, but I’ve realized that Lugosi, who stars in a number of the horror films on my list, just doesn’t do it for me. His “evil” just isn’t convincing after Nosferatu.

Van Helsing reveals that Bela Lugosi's Dracula has no reflection.

Van Helsing reveals that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula has no reflection.

Lugosi’s portrayal is even less convincing after seeing Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958), Hammer Horror’s take on the classic tale. While I didn’t really love this adaptation either, Lee’s Dracula is strangely magnetic and you really feel the simultaneous attraction/repulsion on the part of his victims. And Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing is spot on. However, this adaptation also radically transforms the Dracula tale, unnecessarily in my opinion, though ultimately I think the story works far better than the 1931 version. Still, after really enjoying Hammer’s take on Frankenstein, I expected better. [Side note: OMG, I just realized I may come out of this classic horror series thinking Francis Ford Coppola’s take—one of the three films in my life where I have considered walking out of the theater—is the superior one. A truly terrifying thought.]

Christopher Lee's Dracula seduces yet another victim.

Christopher Lee’s Dracula seduces yet another victim.

Frankenstein’s Monster

Dr. Frankenstein and Fritz get busy in a late-night lab session.

Dr. Frankenstein and Fritz get busy in a late-night lab session.

Look. It’s moving… It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive. It’s moving… It’s alive. Oh, it’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive!!!! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!

I was sure I had seen both Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) but neither seemed familiar when I sat down to watch them all the way through. Maybe repeated viewings of Young Frankenstein just made me think I had seen them. Or maybe it was the web of lies I spun in my high school days as I once used Bride to lie to my mother while at a drunken party. [I called to say I wouldn’t be home because I was staying over at a friend’s house to watch movies (this was in the early days of LaserDiscs and Betamax) and when my mom asked what I was watching Bride of Frankenstein was the first thing that popped into my head. I guess along the way I convinced myself I had seen it.]

Elizabeth is trapped, not by her web of lies, but by her groom's horrific creation.

Elizabeth is trapped, not by her web of lies, but by her groom’s horrific creation.

I’ve read that Bride is often regarded as one of those rare sequels that is better than the original, but I have to disagree. Frankenstein is just too perfect, even if the adaptation is only a loose one. The Gothic creep factor is there from the beginning, what with starting in the cemetery and all. The story is tight and the characters are really fleshed out, even Elizabeth, who is allowed to be far more than a mere damsel in distress—she really gets in there and is involved. [Side note: she also has fabulous dresses.] Plus, the monster is much more sympathetic here than he is in later portrayals. Frankenstein just really held my attention throughout.

The scene that best captures the horror of Frankenstein.

The scene that best captures the horror of Frankenstein.

While Bride of Frankenstein includes my favorite scene from the book (the blind man in his cabin), and the reveal of the bride herself is stunning, overall it is just not cohesive. There are too many narrative threads and it really loses me with the living dolls of Dr. Pretorius, which don’t seem to fit in with the science of this world. What’s worse, in addition to replacing the actress who played her, they completely butchered Elizabeth’s character. And it all comes to a resolution far too quickly. I would have traded the entirety of the unnecessary prologue for five more minutes with the bride. [Side note: OMG, I just realized that Bride of Frankenstein is The Empire Strikes Back—the sequel that everyone remembers as better but is really sort of a hot mess when you take a second look.]

I could have used a lot more of Elsa Lancaster as the bride. The movie is called the Bride of Frankenstein after all.

I could have used a lot more of Elsa Lancaster as the bride. The movie is called the Bride of Frankenstein after all.

What to say about Son of Frankenstein (1939)? This film was produced under the new Universal regime, after a lull in horror production resulting from the twin blows of a British embargo on the genre and the forcing out of the Laemmles from Universal. The lack of practice shows. While the story isn’t bad, and Basil Rathbone as the prodigal Frankenstein is excellent, the monster has become a caricature at this point. In contrast to the first two installments of the series, he elicits zero sympathy and is simply a flat-out murderer. And don’t even get me started on the Flintstones fur get-up he wears. However, as atrocious as the monster’s costuming is, it can’t hold a candle to Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Ygor, who is chewing scenery in the worst way possible throughout the film. In short, I decided to skip Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), which is supposed to be even worse.

Wherein I realize Igor in Young Frankenstein is barely a parody.

Wherein I realize Igor in Young Frankenstein is barely a parody.

Despite being somewhat dismayed by where the Universal Frankenstein series ended up, I was eager to see what Hammer Film Productions would bring to the story in their first color horror film. Much to my delight, I thought their version was brilliant, despite the fact that The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) bears little resemblance to the original book. It just goes to show you how visceral these things can be and some films just work for certain people whereas others don’t. Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein successfully captured both the arrogance and single-mindedness of his character, while Christopher Lee’s monster really looked and acted like an assemblage of parts come back from the dead. The only scene that didn’t quite work for me is that of the blind man, which seemed like an afterthought.

Christopher Lee as Frankenstein's monster in The Curse of Frankenstein.

Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s monster in The Curse of Frankenstein.

The Mummy

“Quiet, Ralph, you’ll wake the mummy.” But Ralph is sure he knows better. Exit Ralph.

The Mummy (1932) is another one I was pretty sure I had seen before but the plot didn’t seem familiar. It could just be that Boris Karloff is so striking as both the mummy Imhotep and Ardath Bey that his scenes are unforgettable even if you have only seen clips of them. His makeup is great and some of the visuals are extraordinary, which is perhaps not surprising given that director Karl Freund was the cinematographer of Metropolis. And maybe I’m just a sucker for stories of ancient Egypt and eternal love, but I thought the plot was very well constructed (until the rather ludicrous conclusion anyway) and the performances very strong. To go by some of the lists I found, I’d say this one is rather underrated by critics and the public. I think it will end up rather high on my list when all is said and done.

Ardath Bey is not scary at all, no siree. Jesus Christ stop looking at me like that, Boris.

Ardath Bey is not scary at all, no siree. Jesus Christ stop looking at me like that, Boris.

The Wolf Man

Oh, the werewolf, the werewolf, please have sympathy
For the werewolf, he is someone, so much like you and me

—Barry Dransfield, “The Werewolf” (1972)

The appeal of The Wolf Man (1941) totally eludes me. As a cautionary tale for stalkers I suppose it’s okay, but as a monster movie it’s pretty weak. For starters, the effects are super cheesy and it feels like you are on a movie set the entire time. The story also needs work: The labored set-up of the telescope is, well, labored, the werewolf comes out of nowhere plot-wise, and the father’s obtuseness in the face of the evidence is utterly unbelievable. Even the performances are pretty flat, a sad statement when you have the likes of Claude Rains on hand. Unsurprisingly, Bela Lugosi overplays his hand. The one saving grace is Maria Ouspenskaya (last seen in Dance, Girl, Dance) as Maleva.

Lon Chaney Jr. as an unconvincing Wolf Man

Lon Chaney Jr. as an unconvincing Wolf Man

Chaney is no more threatening in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), the first of a series of films in which the comedy duo meet classic movie monsters. Here, in addition to Chaney’s Wolf Man, we also get Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster. And there’s a quick voice cameo by Vincent Price as the Invisible Man. I liked this more than I thought I would (I’m not really a fan of slapstick), but I suppose that’s because it’s sort of a screwball take on horror. In fact, it made me even more sad I wasn’t able to get a hold of Hold That Ghost for my post on “old dark houses” (A Dark and Stormy Night).

Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. (And Dracula.)

Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. (And Dracula.)

Do you have a favorite movie monster? Is this a #TeamCap/#TeamIronMan kind of thing? Is one either #TeamDracula or #TeamFrank? Have you ever been one of these monsters for Halloween?

Horror Filmography: Monster Mash
Nosferatu (1922)
Dracula (1931)
Frankenstein (1931)
The Mummy (1932)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Wolf Man (1941)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Horror of Dracula (1958)

For the previous posts in this Classic Horror series, see The Horror! The Horror!, The Silent Scream, and A Dark and Stormy Night.

Returning to Manderley 2016

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As promised, here are the answers to the “first lines” challenge I posted last week. Click here if you’d like to try to guess some of the books before reading the answers below.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

—The opening of Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier

1. He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89.
—Jack Schaefer, Shane (1949)

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2. Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work.
—Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn (2009) [Costa Book Award, Man Booker Prize longlist]

3. When it became common knowledge that the great writer Prétextat Tach would die within two months or so, journalists from around the world requested private interviews with the eighty-year-old gentleman.
—Amélie Nothomb, Hygiène de l’assassin (Hygiene and the Assassin) (1992) [Prix Alain-Fournier]

4. The city that Sunday morning was quiet. Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer week-end had been crushed spiritless by humidity. Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda-water glasses have been washed.
—Vera Caspary, Laura (1942)

5. Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake.
—Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (1987)

6. It was going to be the sale of the century.
—Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Love (2015) [Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist]

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7. Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.
—Naomi Novik, Uprooted (2015) [Nebula Award, Hugo Award nominee]

8. The church is blowing a sad windblown ‘Kathleen’ on the bells in the skid row slums as I wake up all woebegone and goopy, groaning from another drinking bout and groaning most of all because I’d ruined my ‘secret return’ to San Francisco by getting silly drunk while hiding in the alleys with bums and then marching forth into North Beach to see everybody altho Lorenz Monsanto and I’d exchanged huge letters outlining how I would sneak in quietly, call him on the phone using a code name like Adam Yulch or Lalagy Pulvertaft (also writers) and then he would secretly drive me to his cabin in the Big Sur woods where I would be alone and undisturbed for six weeks just chopping wood, drawing water, writing, sleeping, hiking, etc., etc.
—Jack Kerouac, Big Sur (1962)

9. For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.
—Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn (2016)

10. My dear Brother, I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profitting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill, & therefore, if quiet convenient to you & Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a Sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with.
—Jane Austen, Lady Susan (circa 1794) [adapted by Whit Stillman as Love & Friendship in 2016]

11. The stranger came early in February one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.
—H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man (1897)

12. The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided.
—Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

Baker’s Dozen Holiday Bonus: My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas.
—Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002) [Man Booker Prize nominee; Orange Prize shortlist; adapted by Park Chan-wook as The Handmaiden in 2016]

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Double-Secret-Probation Bonus Round: Messenger birds launched as one flock from the council platform. Black bodies studded the blue sky in a cloud of purpose.
—Fran Wilde, Cloudbound (2016)

Congrats to Dana who guessed three of these correctly!

Which one(s) are you kicking yourself over?

Look for reviews and comments on these selections and more in my traditional year-end round-up post at the end of the month.

Go Fourth and Conquer: The First Lines Challenge

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As I have done for the past three Thanksgiving weekends, I hereby present the “first lines” challenge, stolen from James over at Following Pulitzer.

The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

The most important rule of this game is to rely on your own memory and brain and not to cheat by using Google or another resource, print or online. This includes looking up my recent reading at Goodreads.

I’ll say it again, DO NOT use any other resources other than your own brain and/or the brains of those around you.

So, what’s the game, you say?

Below I’ve posted a list of first lines from books I’ve read (or am reading) this year—your job is to guess the author and title of the work I’ve quoted from.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

—The opening of Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

Some truths:
• Some of these should be quite easy; others are fairly difficult.
• I’ve used discretion as to what counts as the first line.
• The line may be in translation, my own or another’s work.
• The authors or books are generally well known, have won or been nominated for prizes, have been adapted for the silver screen, or have been otherwise much discussed recently.
• The selections can be from any time period or genre, fiction or non-fiction—what ties them together is that I have read (or am reading) them this year.

If you own a copy of the work, it’s fine to check it before you post it as a guess. Any other reference work or tool, print or online, is strictly forbidden. If it’s driving you crazy and you end up googling the answers, that is certainly understandable, but don’t share your findings with the rest of us, that is unforgivable!

Anybody is welcome to comment and guess and I encourage you to do so since even an incorrect guess may trigger something in someone else’s memory. I may also offer hints in my responses so be sure to subscribe to the comments. Whatever is not guessed outright or crowd-sourced through the comments will be posted on November 30.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

—The opening of Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy

1.  He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

2.  Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

3.  When it became common knowledge that the great writer Prétextat Tach would die within two months or so, journalists from around the world requested private interviews with the eighty-year-old gentleman. [Hint: This first line is my own translation.]

4.  The city that Sunday morning was quiet. Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer week-end had been crushed spiritless by humidity. Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda-water glasses have been washed. [Hint: I would wager no one has read this, but many probably have seen the movie. If not, you really should, it is the epitome of classic Hollywood.]

5.  Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake. [Hint: With an opening like that, it is perhaps no surprise that this author has a Pulitzer Prize to his name.]

6.  It was going to be the sale of the century. [Hint: At times, this novel is narrated by the item to be sold at the “sale of the century” of the first sentence.]

7.  Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

8. The church is blowing a sad windblown ‘Kathleen’ on the bells in the skid row slums as I wake up all woebegone and goopy, groaning from another drinking bout and groaning most of all because I’d ruined my ‘secret return’ to San Francisco by getting silly drunk while hiding in the alleys with bums and then marching forth into North Beach to see everybody altho Lorenz Monsanto and I’d exchanged huge letters outlining how I would sneak in quietly, call him on the phone using a code name like Adam Yulch or Lalagy Pulvertaft (also writers) and then he would secretly drive me to his cabin in the Big Sur woods where I would be alone and undisturbed for six weeks just chopping wood, drawing water, writing, sleeping, hiking, etc., etc. [Hint: You should at least be able to guess the author on this one. And the title is right there in the first sentence if you can find it.]

9.  For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet. [Hint: Not the shortest novel I read all year (that would be #10), but pretty darn short.]

10.  My dear Brother, I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profitting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill, & therefore, if quiet convenient to you & Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a Sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

11.  The stranger came early in February one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand. [Hint: I read this because of my classic horror film project.]

12.  The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

Baker’s Dozen Holiday Bonus:  My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. [Hint: As is the case with #10, this book was adapted into one of my favorite films of the year.]

Double-Secret-Probation Bonus Round:  Messenger birds launched as one flock from the council platform. Black bodies studded the blue sky in a cloud of purpose. [ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

Please post any guesses below, not on Facebook or Twitter. That way, everyone will be contributing to the challenge in the same place. If you want time to think and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read the comments below and remember to check back on November 30 for a new post with the answers.

Good luck!

Film 101—Horror II: A Dark and Stormy Night

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It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents

—Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford, 1830

After I had watched all the silent films on my classic horror list (and the first few sound pictures), I started to get a sense of how I might break down my list for posting. Maybe it’s because of my ongoing Agatha Christie reread, but I immediately knew I wanted to start with the “old dark house” trope.

In classic horror, old dark house movies are probably the least “horrific” as there is rarely a supernatural premise driving the narrative. Though the atmosphere is foreboding, and people may think that the paranormal is involved in the goings on, usually the menace to the characters is something fairly mundane, a criminal posing as an innocent member of the party, a criminal behind the scenes, or an escaped lunatic. There can be a ghost, but this is rare. Much more common are rumors of a ghost.

The setting is an old dark house (duh), a castle, or a hotel, often with secret passages used to scare people or steal something. There also may be portraits used for spying. Little to no scenes take place outside or off the grounds, probably because many of these mystery whodunnits are based on stage plays. Often the story begins with the classic “dark and stormy” night, and strangers gather to escape the weather or family members gather for the reading of a will. Sometimes the gathering is by invitation—for a mysterious dinner party or to test haunted house rumors. Problems with outside communication or lighting are common. A stock character is a creepy housekeeper or caretaker. Despite the gloomy aspect, these films often have a comedic edge to them; I suppose it helps break the tension.

The film that gave its name to this subgenre is The Old Dark House (1932); however, as previously mentioned in my post on silent horror, there are a couple of prior films which use the devices common to this trope. The Monster (1925) does to some degree, but the most obvious example from the silent period is The Cat and the Canary (1927).

Creepy housekeeper? Check. Beautiful damsel in distress? Check. The Cat and the Canary is a great "old dark house" mystery.

Creepy housekeeper? Check. Beautiful damsel in distress? Check. The Cat and the Canary is a great “old dark house” mystery.

The Cat and the Canary is an excellent silent film that I highly recommend. In fact, I liked this first incarnation of the play better than the second one (see below). Filmed by German expressionist Paul Leni, it displays extremely creative filmmaking that uses dramatic shadows and other effects to heighten the gloomy atmosphere as well as the comedic aspects of the plot. One favorite touch was the hand wiping away cobwebs to reveal the title in the opening credits. Moreover, I really felt I got to know all the characters and their quirks, despite the fact that it is a silent picture.

All men are alike, only some are worse.

—Flora Finch in The Cat and the Canary

Unsurprisingly, The Old Dark House is the best of this genre. Based on Benighted, a J.B. Priestley novel, the plot and script are excellent. And the film boasts an incredible cast to make that script come to life, including Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton (in his first Hollywood role), and a young Gloria Stuart (of Titanic fame). Furthermore, it has strong female roles and some lovely romantic bits (and being pre-Code is refreshingly frank at times). The story is perhaps wrapped up a bit too quickly at the end, but that is a minor quibble. I’m sure when all is said and done with this horror series, The Old Dark House will be in the running for most underrated.

Eva Moore is less than welcoming to Gloria Stuart in The Old Dark House.

Eva Moore is less than welcoming to Gloria Stuart in The Old Dark House.

Gloria Stuart also stars in Secret of the Blue Room (1933), a Universal remake of a German film that was later remade twice, as The Missing Guest (1938) and Murder in the Blue Room (1944). I can’t remember how I came across this title but it was available at the library so I decided to add it in to the mix. It plays more as a locked-room murder mystery than horror, but then I guess a lot of these do. I was happy to see Gloria Stuart again and also the great Edward Arnold as the police commissioner.

Oh, it must be terrible to be a man and have to be brave. Thank goodness I can be a coward with a clean conscience.

—Gloria Stuart in Secret of the Blue Room

One Frightened Night (1935) is one of those B-movie pictures you don’t get to see unless you purposely seek it out. I thought it was quite fun. As per usual, we have an old man, his money, and his family, with the added twist of a two women showing up claiming to be the same long-lost granddaughter. The production values leave a lot to be desired but there are a few creative touches I really liked. For one, it has a great opening credit sequence involving window shades and shutters. It also stars Hedda Hopper as one of the greedy relatives.

As I stated above, I didn’t like the second incarnation of The Cat and the Canary (1939) as much as the first. I can’t really explain why, maybe it’s because I already knew the basic plot. It also might be because there was such a strong focus on the two leads (Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard) that the other characters didn’t seem as fleshed out as in the silent picture. I did like the change of location to Louisiana and the bayou. But overall it just felt like it was plodding along.

Do you believe in reincarnation?
—Huh?
—You know, that dead people come back?
—You mean like the Republicans?

—Nydia Westman and Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary

Regardless of my thoughts on The Cat and the Canary, it must have done relatively well as Hope and Goddard teamed up again just a year later for The Ghost Breakers (1940), another old dark house comedy mystery—though it takes them some time to actually get to the old dark house since the movie starts in a stormy New York before cruising down to Cuba (where Goddard has inherited an island with a creepy mansion). Even though it spends a bit too much time on tangential events, I very much enjoyed this one. I thought Goddard and Hope had much better chemistry here and the stakes seemed to be higher all around.

Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope on the lookout for ghosts and zombies in The Ghost Breakers.

Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope on the lookout for ghosts and zombies in The Ghost Breakers.

It’s worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly, with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.
—You mean like Democrats?

—Richard Carlson and Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers

I really would have liked to have seen Abbott & Costello’s Hold That Ghost (1941) as part of this review, but I couldn’t access it through any of my usual sources. I hope to see it at some point since I’ve discovered I enjoy this genre quite a bit. For that reason, there are a few other minor examples in the 1940s that I may seek out eventually, but that seems to be when this genre peters out. I didn’t find any sign of major “old dark house” stories until House on Haunted Hill (1959).

House on Haunted Hill, starring Vincent Price, was the film I was most looking forward to on this list. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed exactly, but it wasn’t what I expected. As ridiculous as some of the premises are in these films, this one really takes the cake. There were just too many unanswered questions for me to lose myself in the plot. The movie can’t seem to decide if it wants to be campy or creepy and ends up just being cheesy. And the characters remain cyphers throughout; I never was able to get a hold on any of them. This is another one where I’m glad I saw it but don’t know that I’d revisit it.

Vincent Price steals the show in House on Haunted Hill.

Vincent Price steals the show in House on Haunted Hill.

Have you seen any of these old dark house mysteries? If so, do you have more you might recommend to me? Let me know in the comments below.

Horror Filmography: Old Dark Houses
The Monster (1925)
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The Old Dark House (1932)
Secret of the Blue Room (1933)
One Frightened Night (1935)
The Cat and the Canary (1939)
The Ghost Breakers (1940)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)

For the previous posts in this Classic Horror series, see The Horror! The Horror! and The Silent Scream.

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Film 101—Horror I: The Silent Scream

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No, despite the title, this isn’t a post on the presidential election. But the results of that contest somehow made me more eager than ever to get back to my classic horror project, which, relatively speaking, is much less terrifying.

Although I didn’t mention it in my last post, one of the reasons I wanted to take up the subject of horror was Edgar Wright’s recent list of “1000 Favorite Movies” on MUBI. While I have a number of issues with his list that I won’t go into here, one of the things that particularly struck me was the prevalence of horror on it. By my count, horror films comprise just over 15 percent of the selections (yes, yes, there’s a spreadsheet). No other film genre even comes close. Of course, Wright’s interest in horror is no real surprise considering he arrived on the directorial scene with the British horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead, but I was somewhat astounded by the sheer volume of it, along with the relative lack of other typical “film buff” genres such as film noir or the western. In any case, seeing Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu) as the first two names on this (chronological) list made me realize I had some catching up to do when it came to horror.

In no surprise to long-time readers, I decided to move in a similar fashion and proceed chronologically through this genre. So I also started with Caligari and Nosferatu as well as a few of the silent films that turned up most often on various “best of horror” lists I found. There were more films I would have liked to have seen but I only have so much time and many weren’t easily available to me via the library or streaming—the classic collections at both Netflix and Hulu are sorely lacking and even Amazon (for which I have to pay per film) didn’t have all that much when it came to the older titles. On the other hand, the San Francisco public library was a veritable treasure trove and most films I will be watching for this entire series came from there.

In another non-surprise to frequent readers, I was somewhat dreading my first two films simply due to their German-ness. This dread proved well-founded in the case of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)—which is more arthouse than grindhouse, and not an arthouse I’m particularly interested in. I’ve never been a fan of German Expressionism and so Caligari’s visual style left me cold. While this movie could appeal on a plot-basis alone (which I won’t spoil here), I found the acting abysmal, the characters underdeveloped, and the intertitle narrative poorly executed, definitely the worst of any silent here. So, while I’m glad I finally saw it, because it does lay the groundwork for what comes later, I don’t imagine I’ll be rewatching it any time soon.

The graphic dreamscape of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The graphic visuals of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

After my disappointment with Caligari, I was a bit wary of having to sit through Nosferatu (1922), but I ended up really liking it. Everything I thought was problematic in Caligari was incredibly done here. The visuals felt fresh and modern. I really felt I got to know the characters and their individual quirks, despite the lack of dialogue. The film makes excellent use of intertitles—not telling when they’ve effectively showed something and vice versa. What’s more, Count Orlok (i.e., Count Dracula, since this film is really just an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with the names changed to protect the not-so-innocent) is certifiably creepy. I think my only problem with the execution of Nosferatu is the lighting. It was genuinely hard to tell when it was supposed to be night and when it was supposed to be day: A problem with a main character for whom sunlight spells doom. But I have a feeling this will be the best vampire picture of the lot, and it definitely made me want to seek out more Murnau.

But why is the rum gone, Nosferatu?

But why is the rum gone, Nosferatu?

After these two revered classics, I watched five more silent (or nearly silent) films: The Monster, The Phantom of the Opera, The Unknown, The Cat and the Canary, and Vampyr. The interesting thing about this selection of films is that I soon realized that together they presented most of the themes, tropes, and subgenres I suspected I would find throughout the classic period: supernatural creatures, criminals and other human evildoers, madmen and mad scientists, enthralled henchman, damsels in distress, Gothic mansions and fantastic dreamscapes, and the bizarre or grotesque. So, while I started this project with the idea of a strictly chronological review, I soon shifted to the idea of looking at these movies by theme, which I will do starting with my next post.

In the meantime, back to the silent era…

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The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is perhaps the best known of the other silents, mostly due to Lon Chaney’s brilliant makeup as the phantom. The film itself is a bit of a mess all around, but it’s a glorious mess. The sets are extraordinary, particularly the opera house, but also the underground lake and dungeons. Apparently this was a very troubled production—the studio was unhappy with the Gothic melodrama shot by Rupert Julian and a new director was brought in to essentially reshoot most of the picture and turn it into a romantic action comedy. Or something. Anyway, the film was cut, and then recut, and then recut back again. So I suspect some of the parts that don’t really make sense (such as the Frankenstein-like mob at the end) come from this re-cutting. This is definitely more melodrama than horror, but deserves a place in the horror canon if only for its proto-horror elements and Chaney’s exceptional makeup, which is not revealed until almost halfway through the film. The color interlude of the masked ball where Chaney enters as the Red Death is glorious. [Side note: three segments of the film were shot in Technicolor but only this one survives]. A few other elements that stood out to me: the use of shadow throughout, the significant use of text in the intertitles, and the amount of time granted the opera sequences (a full thirty minutes).

The Technicolor “Bal Masqué” sequence in The Phantom of the Opera

I also watched two other Lon Chaney movies of the period: The Monster (1925) and The Unknown (1927). While some might not classify them as horror, Wikipedia does, and I agree that they certainly seemed to fall underneath the horror umbrella, the former being an early example of both an “old dark house” and “mad scientist” story and the latter falling into the realm of the grotesque.

Lon Chaney up to no good with Gertrude Olmstead in The Monster

Lon Chaney up to no good with Gertrude Olmstead in The Monster

The Monster is quite fun, telling the story of Johnny Goodlittle who aspires to become a detective and—in the course of some amateur sleuthing in the quest of a missing person—finds himself trapped in the supposedly abandoned local asylum with his love interest and rival. Chaney plays the mysterious Dr. Ziska who is up to no good. Trap doors and hidden passages abound.

Hands! Men’s hands! How I hate them! Men! The beasts! God would show wisdom if he took the hands from all of them!

—Joan Crawford as Nanon Zanzi in The Unknown

The Unknown is much, much darker. In this drama, Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a carnival worker with an unusual knife-throwing act, while a young Joan Crawford plays his assistant and love interest. Just when you think you know where the story is headed, it takes a surprising turn. The film was directed by Tod Browning, who later went on to direct Freaks. Chaney is simply amazing in it.

Lon Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless alongside Joan Crawford in The Unknown.

Lon Chaney as Alonzo the Armless alongside Joan Crawford in The Unknown

The final, true silent I watched was The Cat and the Canary (1927), a classic “old dark house” mystery, though it arrived on the scene a full five years before the film that would give this subgenre its name. This film is the first of two versions of the 1922 play of the same name that I will be reviewing for this series, the second being The Cat and the Canary (1939) starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. I really enjoyed this one and it inspired me to tackle the subgenre more fully in my next post. Stay tuned.

The last film I am discussing here is Vampyr (1932). Though technically a sound film, and one well within the sound period, when I reached it in my chronological viewing schedule I realized Vampyr is almost completely silent (hence its placement here rather than later on in this series). Apparently it was filmed in three different languages and so dialogue was minimized. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, it is much more of a surreal mood piece than a proper horror film. The main character is described as a dreamer and, in fact, it was not always clear to me if some parts were supposed to represent dreams or whether it was all supernatural. It is not even really clear until the end who the vampire is. As in Nosferatu, I think it would have worked better if it had been darker—literally—it was just too bright at night to be truly creepy. Still, it is an interesting take on the vampire genre and the comeuppance of one of the villains at the end is truly horrific.

A little Vampyr pick-me-up

A little Vampyr pick-me-up for when Nosferatu has finished the rum

Have you seen any of these silent classics? If so, do you have more you might recommend to me based on my preferences here? Let me know in the comments below.

Horror Filmography: The Silents
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Nosferatu (1922)
The Monster (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Unknown (1927)
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
Vampyr (1932)

For the previous post in this Classic Horror series, see The Horror! The Horror!.