Keith A. Reynolds
The night is electric with the sounds of nature battling her most destructive children. The darkness seems to be more than just the average effect of the sun exiting our view of the sky. It seems somehow darker than dark. Almost as if it were tangible; a physical cloak blocking mankind from the warming rays of our celestial protector. As the wind howls and the sky splits with the dreadful scar of lightning, I’m reminded of the date, and the fact that I had promised Alex, the Features Editor, a thousand words by Thursday. It is now 11:30 on Friday and I’m half drunk.
As a particularly poor newspaper man with moderately morbid sensibilities, my nightmares are haunted by Karl, the editor-in-chief of our beloved Collegian, shouting about deadlines and the ridiculousness of my articles. This fear of very practical things leaves me unhindered to objectively evaluate the terrors that haunt others.
Terrors have long held sway over our culture in the form of stories and eerie feelings when one wanders into the dark for whatever reason. For nearly 100 years, these stories and feelings have manifested themselves in the form of horror films.
I speak of horror films in a very general sense, but there is a cornucopia of sub genres today that range from the old-fashioned ghost story of those terrible Paranormal Activity flicks to the fairly gruesome torture porn of the absolutely awful Saw movies. If my descriptions of what the internet has chosen to deem ‘classics’ has not given it away, I’ll come out and say it, (or type it rather) these movies are utter crap. I find my tastes run to things of an older vintage.
This could be a side-effect of the whole “poor newspaper man” thing. You see, the true classics tend to be on the cheaper side. Well, everything but the Universal films. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s observe the beginning of the genre.
The dawn of spine-chilling cinema
The first narratively explicit horror film was the 1910 Edison production of Frankenstein. Now, as you may recall from your primary school days, Thomas Edison invented the moving picture process that led to the movie as we know it today. The fact that this film was created by his personal production company, makes this movie a historical landmark on the road to the $10.50 that Regal Cinemas attempts to wring from our wallet every time Hollywood decides to remake something that wasn’t good to start with.
Besides the historical significance of the Edison Frankenstein, it is worth mentioning that the monster is simply horrifying. Even 104 years after it was released the effects and creature design are decades ahead of their time.
The film was immediately banned and believed to be lost until the mid-70s, and like all the films released before 1922 is now in the public domain. It is readily available on YouTube, but I would avoid any versions with swear words or references to Juilliard, they strike me as inauthentic.
When discussing the genesis of celluloid scream inducers one would be remiss to not mention the 1922 classic German adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu. This silent gem contains some of the creepiest performances captured on film and is practically a textbook on German Expressionism while simultaneously presenting the tale of the undead count so faithfully that Bram Stoker’s widow successfully sued the production company for copyright infringement and had all the existing prints destroyed. Luckily, a few survived so we can enjoy this creepy classic on assorted sites around the web.
Other silent classics worth mentioning are The Hunchback of Notre Dame from 1923, and The Phantom of the Opera from 1925. Both of these films starred the chameleonic Lon Chaney, Sr. and were the pinnacle of his career and exorbitantly expensive to produce at the time. Again, you can find these online and if you haven’t seen them, well, let’s just say I’m judging you.
Crystallizing the classics
In 1931, Universal began producing a string of monster movies that still stand as the supreme expressions of the art form with Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning. This film, though marred by its unimaginative camera angles, slow pace, and incredibly boring stretches of dialog, serves as the blueprint for modern presentations of the novel. To this day every actor who has donned the cape (from Christopher Lee to Luke Evans), has had to measure up to Lugosi’s suave yet creepily foreign performance. When you see children or drunken adults dressing as the count for Halloween, they are invariably dressing as Lugosi’s version.
This was followed by the James Whale helmed Frankenstein in 1932, which is one of the most brilliant films ever produced. Honestly, I can (and have) watched this film dozens of times and you should as well. The atmosphere created by the lighting, cinematography, and the performances of the truly mad Colin Clive and uncanny Boris Karloff creates a fairy tale atmosphere that can permeate your bones if you simply allow yourself to be carried away by what you’re seeing on the screen.
Both Lugosi’s Dracula and Karloff’s Frankenstein spawned a number of sequels by Universal. Many of these were simply terrible and are either not worth mentioning or forgettable.
This does not apply to the immediate sequel following Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein. Oddly, this sequel is regarded by many to be superior to the original, and though I disagree with that sentiment, it is impossible to deny the greatness of the film. Elsa Lanchester is a vision of loveliness in her dual role as Mary Wollstonecraft and The Monster’s Mate.
Seeing the success of these two masterpieces of the genre and their sequels, Universal rushed to capitalize on the zeitgeist and produce a myriad of other monster films. These included The Invisible Man starring Claude Rains as a mad scientist (who, get this, turns himself invisible), The Mummy starring Boris Karloff as a wayward corpse who has returned from the darkness of death to find the reincarnation of his former love, and The Wolfman starring Lon Chaney, Jr as Lawrence Talbot the whiniest of all Universal monsters. Each of these spawned their own sequels, spinoffs, and crossovers; most of those tend to suck.
The Universal monster movies made outlandish amounts of money and inspired children across the world. The dreams of these children would be haunted for decades by these brooding and misunderstood figures lurching about in the darkness. These same children grew up and decided to revitalize these characters for their generation.
From the 50s to the 70s, a British company called Hammer Films made some of the finest horror flicks since Universal. Their reimagining of the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy are masterpieces of gothic horror. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing formed a terrific team as onscreen mortal enemies Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing in the Hammer flicks and their portrayals, in vivid color no less, have reverberated in horror films throughout the intervening decades.
Another icon of the horror film, though more for his acting than any one character he played, is Vincent Price. Yes, the creepy voice in Thriller that doesn’t belong to Michael Jackson was in fact a full on movie star and one of the best at portraying suave madness and murderous sophistication. Known for his work in the Roger Corman films based on works of Edgar Allan Poe of the 60s, the true shining moment of Price’s career was the 1959 classic, House on Haunted Hill. He played a millionaire who throws a party at a notoriously haunted house (as the name implies) and offers $10,000 to any of his guests who will stay there all night.
The degradation of the deadly
The 70s proved to be the dawn of the slasher films, which signaled the dark ages of quality monster and supernatural movies. Without much interest among the moviegoing public, monsters seemed relegated to B movies.
In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola set out to change this trend by directing Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Now, this is a problematic film to me. You see, I love the visual effects and Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the count is equal parts Lugosi’s debonair flair and Lee’s savage wildness, and don’t even get me started on the brilliance of Anthony Hopkins. The problem lies in most of the rest of the cast. Keanu Reeves playing Jonathan Harker? Who in their right mind thought that would be a great idea? Imagine Ted Logan attempting a British accent and looking even more empty-headed than usual and there you have the basis of Reeves’ portrayal of Harker.
This was followed by Kenneth Branagh’s version of Frankenstein featuring Branagh as the titular mad doctor with Robert De Niro as his abominable creation. This flick stymied Coppola’s hope of bringing about a renaissance of monster horror films, but it was not the end of the genre.
Sadly, the use of vampires and werewolves in films was hijacked by young adult authors and talentless hacks like those who created the Twilight perversions. The undead creatures of the night were falsely portrayed as whiny stereotypes that lust after teenage girls and brood about the fact that they are sparkly. I lacked the requisite estrogen to follow anything those fools were actually saying.
Reanimating the damned
Recently, Universal has decided to retake the realm of monster films and build it back into their own image. The latest and best foray into this realm is Dracula Untold. This reimagining of the Dracula story features a count very similar to the historical Vlad the Impaler except, you know, he’s a vampire. Despite the ridiculousness of the story, or perhaps because of it, the flick is pretty terrific. Wonderful battle scenes combined with the pathos brought to the character by Luke Evans made the film a very worthy successor to the Universal classics.
So here we are 104 years after the invention of the horror film and the industry has come back to the main feature that defined them; monsters. The reason these creatures appeal to people today just as well as they did to former generations is because deep inside no matter how many advances we’ve made in science, technology or even social tolerance, we will always be fearful of the unknown. Movie monsters are embodiments of this fear. They come from foreign lands and their thoughts and intentions are alien to us. This isn’t even taking into account the fact that many of them would be more than happy to, you know, eat us and/or suck all the blood from our bodies and leave us either a pile of bones, an empty sack of vaguely human skin or one of them. As long as these primal fears are a part of the mindset of humanity there will be a place for horror movies in the media, and I for one will use my measly income to see them.