With the DVD release of NIGHTMARES IN RED WHITE AND BLUE looming, I thought I’d spend the next few weeks highlighting some great horror films that aren’t included in the documentary. In 96 minutes, NIRWAB references approximately 250 films… but, of course, this barely scratches the surface of “classic horror.” With that in mind, I’ve given myself a task for the weeks leading up to Halloween. For each decade between the 1930s and the 2000s, I’m going pick ten additional films to highlight. And since there are plenty of great horror films that I haven’t even seen yet, I’m also going to review a pair of films from each decade that are completely new to me. Let the Countdown to Halloween begin!
Universal's DRACULA (1931) made the commercial appeal of “morbid” supernatural fantasy immediately apparent, and the studio was eager to duplicate its success. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) makes an interesting study because it’s based on story elements that writer/director Robert Florey intended for Universal’s screen adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN. The film is also notable as actor Bela Lugosi’s follow-up to his star-making role in DRACULA… which came only after he turned down the role of Frankenstein’s Monster. RUE MORGUE has absolutely nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name, but – like most of the classic Universal monster movies – it does have mood to spare.
Lugosi fared even better in the same year’s WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), which capitalized on his exotic Dracula persona (there are an unholy number of prolonged closeups of Lugosi's eyes), while Boris Karloff rode Frankenstein’s coattails into the more prestigious THE MUMMY (1933), arguably the most beautiful of Universal’s monster movies. The opening scenes, set in Egypt, benefit greatly from the natural beauty of Red Rock Canyon in Kern County, California, and the rest of the film testifies to the natural talents of cinematographer Karl Freund. The only problem with THE MUMMY, as George A. Romero said to me during our interview for NIRWAB, is that “there’s no mummy in THE MUMMY!” In fact, you only see Karloff as the Mummy in the opening sequence. After that, he takes off the bandages and becomes Ardeth Bey – a lethargic variation on Lugosi’s Dracula. (Romero added: “It was Christopher Lee’s Mummy that really impressed me!”) For sheer atmosphere, the film that trumps all of Hollywood’s early monster movies is the German Expressionist film VAMPYR (1932), Carl Dreyer’s first sound film. It would be years before native American filmmakers learned how to capture the same dreamlike quality.
Arguably more innovative but certainly less atmospheric was a pair of films that director Michael Curtiz made for MGM. When I interviewed Larry Cohen, he raved about Curtiz’s work. Despite his enthusiasm for the director, however, he wasn’t particularly impressed with DR. X (1932) or MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933). At the time, these films had the distinct appeal of being presented in color (actually three-strip Technicolor) and being set in modern-day America. DR. X plays like a 1930s American screwball comedy with some scares tacked on: THE FRONT PAGE in a rubber mask. MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM is a more compelling horror movie. In my opinion, it’s just as effective as its better-known remake HOUSE OF WAX (1953).
The most shamefully overlooked 1930s monster movie is Paramount’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), a surprisingly gutsy adaptation of H.G. Wells’s “Island of Dr. Moreau.” It features a memorably sadistic performance by Charles Laughton (as the mad scientist who cross-breeds men and beasts) and a notable minor performance by Bela Lugosi, as one of Moreau’s man-beast creations who rebels against his creator. It’s a crime that this movie still isn’t available on DVD.
One of the best DVDs around for classic monster movie fans is disc three of MGM’s “Legends of Horror” Collection: a double feature of MAD LOVE (1935) and THE DEVIL DOLL (1936). MAD LOVE features Peter Lorre as an obsessive surgeon named Gogol. Bela Lugosi tried to top his eccentricities in the similarly-themed THE RAVEN (1935), but nobody plays crazy better than Peter Lorre. THE DEVIL DOLL is equally eccentric, but is perhaps more notable as director Tod Browning’s most sentimental film. Lionel Barrymore’s turn as an emotionally tortured scientist has all the pathos (though, admittedly, less of the perversity) of Browning’s early efforts with Lon Chaney.
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) is a capstone on the decade, reflecting a dramatic change in the genre: The extroverted horror film was no longer in vogue. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is not nearly as morbid as its predecessors, and most of the thematic darkness is softened with humor. In fact, it would fit better on a double bill with Mel Brooks’s parody YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) than with James Whale’s films. This was Boris Karloff’s last turn as Frankenstein’s Monster (who, for some reason, has gone mute since BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN). Bela Lugosi plays another thankless role, as Ygor.
There are plenty of monster movies from this decade that I have yet to see. I admit that I’ve only watched about half of the Universal pictures that appeared in the “Shock” and “Son of Shock” TV packages in the 1950s. (About half of them aren’t available on DVD yet.) Several of the filmmakers that I interviewed for NIRWAB fondly remembered those films. Joe Dante said:
When I was a kid, I lived in the suburbs of New Jersey and there were no revival houses. Occasionally they would find a film like THE WIZARD OF OZ and run that on a matinee, but for the most part we were completely unaware of earlier pictures. That all changed when the Shock package was sold to TV. That was Universal movies from the 30s and 40s that had escaped our notice, because they were never available… The coming of the Shock package to television was a big deal because it was all over the country at the same time. And it coincided with the creation of Famous Monsters of Filmland, which was the publication that united a lot of kids who felt very alone in their obsession with these movies, and didn’t think there were other kids like them out there. When the magazine became available [we realized], “Hey there’s more kids like this. Like me.” It was the beginning of monster movie fandom. There had always been science fiction fandom, but it was very literary. But this was movie stuff. The one thing that Forry Ackerman did, I think, for a lot of people who grew up to go into the movie business was to sort of educate them to the fact that there was more than just going to the movies – more than just sitting there and going home. There were people out there who made these movies. There were people who starred in them. And there were trends and types and categories of films. It was really the beginning of critical thinking, I think, for a lot of kids.
Mick Garris remembers:
Channel 6 showed horror movies late at night, on a show called The Scary Show. And it was just a guy in a lousy rubber mask – not a memorable horror host at all – but he had the Universal package, so they would run the DRACULAs and the FRANKENSTEINs and THE WOLF MAN at 11:30 on Saturday night, and my mother would stay up and watch them with me. Most mothers at the time would discourage kids from reading comic books or watching monster movies, from drawing ghoulish things and the like… but my mother would say, “At least he’s reading, at least he’s drawing, at least he’s writing, at least he’s doing something creative,” and was very encouraging about it… She wasn’t a big horror fan but she would watch them and say, “You know, that was a good movie.” I remember after watching the 1931 DRACULA, she said, “That really holds up.” I don’t know that she’d say that today but back in the 60s she said, “That really holds up”… So I guess in part I have her to thank for my turn down the dark aisle.
Many of the “Shock” films that have been released on DVD over the past few years feature Boris Karloff. In 2006, Universal released the “Boris Karloff Collection” – which includes NIGHT KEY (1937) and THE MAD GHOUL (1943) – and the “Icons of Horror” collection, featuring THE BLACK ROOM (1935), THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939), BEFORE I HANG (1940) and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942). The “Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive” box set, released in 2009, includes THE BLACK CAT (1934), MAN MADE MONSTER (1941), HORROR ISLAND (1941), NIGHT MONSTER (1942) and CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943).
This Halloween, I decided to watch two non-Universal Karloff movies from the same time period, THE GHOUL (1933) and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941). Both were good finds. THE GHOUL is also relatively new to DVD… It was believed to be a lost film until a near-perfect-quality negative was found at the British Film Institute in the 1980s. MGM finally released the title on DVD in 2003, and it’s a beautiful sight.
The film stars Karloff as an Egyptologist who returns from the dead to stalk greedy heirs in a spooky old mansion. The cinematography is beautiful, and the dialogue surprisingly witty. Unfortunately, Karloff doesn’t get much screen time. Neither does Ernest Thesiger (best known as the wily Dr. Pretorious in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN).
Obviously there are some missed opportunities, but it's still a great companion piece to THE MUMMY (1933) and THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1934)… or even George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1967). Romero’s original title for NOTLD was “Anubis,” named after the Egyptian God of the Dead, and his concept of the living dead was very different from how it came to be interpreted by viewers: “I didn’t use vampires,” he told me, “because [Richard Matheson] had done that [in his novel I Am Legend]. I didn’t call them zombies because zombies were those boys in the Caribbean doing Lugosi’s wet work [in WHITE ZOMBIE]… I called them ghouls.”
The concept of the “living dead” is quite different in Columbia’s THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941), directed by Edward Dmytryk. THE DEVIL COMMANDS is a Lovecraftian story that casts Karloff in the role of an obsessive scientist studying brain waves. After his wife is killed in a car accident, he goes mad, enlists the help of a cold-hearted psychic and starts experimenting on corpses. His goal is to use them as physical mediums for communication with his wife’s disembodied spirit.
Parallels to FRANKENSTEIN are numerous – right down to the Victorian warnings about “things mankind wasn’t mean to know” and an inevitable confrontation with an angry mob of provincial conservatives. Although it lacks the frisson to be a true horror classic, THE DEVIL COMMANDS is nevertheless an impressively literate horror film. Personally, I can’t help thinking of it as a forerunner to Tom McLoughlin’s ONE DARK NIGHT (1981), which delves deep into the pseudo-science of biofeedback beyond the grave. My only complaint: Where the hell is the devil in THE DEVIL COMMANDS?