A cold stillness clutches the Transylvanian night, broken only by a horse-drawn coach rattling noisily over the stony roadway crossing the haunted barrenness of Borgo Pass. There is no coachman. Instead, a large, black bat eerily flies above the terrified horses, driving them on to their sinister destination: Castle Dracula.
My introduction to horror movies occurred in 1956. The scene described above, so redolent of impending doom, impressed itself in all its black-and-white glory on my six-year-old imagination. Still, despite being enthralled by the creepy ambience, I knew the bat was a phony. The willing suspension of disbelief goes far in such cases.
Each Sunday and Tuesday evening in October, Turner Classic Movies presents the classic Universal Pictures horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, switching midmonth to showcase the gory, blood-soaked remakes of those movies produced by Hammer Films during the 1950s to 1970s.
Especially with the first week's crop of heavyweights, try to banish from memory the two-dimensional parodies, stereotypes, cartoons and Count Chocula. Enjoy the thrills and chills as if for the first time by considering each story’s themes within a Catholic context recalling that, at their simplest, all horror movies are tales of good against evil, sin and redemption.
It’s fitting that TCM kicks off its month of horror with “Dracula,” starring everyone’s favorite vampire, Bela Lugosi. Universal staked their hopes on his wildly successful turn as the Count in the 1927 Broadway play and got lucky. Despite a certain staginess Lugosi’s vivid portrayal of the undead fiend, with his suave, Middle European accent and mannerisms, was a smash hit, going far to popularize the terror trend in talkies.
Bram Stoker, the story’s author, presents Dracula as Christ in reverse, perversely turning his promise of everlasting life topsy-turvy and inside out.
In England, Dracula takes up residence in the ruins of Carfax Abbey, one of the monasteries stolen from the Church by Henry VIII — perhaps as a sign of evil thriving where the Faith has decayed.
The baleful atmosphere is broken by the strength of Edward van Sloane as Professor van Helsing, too wise to allow modernity to erase his knowledge of how effectively hell reaches into human lives. He knows the most powerful repellent against Dracula is the crucifix. The vampire having cut himself off from grace cannot bear to see Jesus represented as enacting the supreme act of God’s love. Without trepidation he pounds a stake through Dracula’s heart to end his evil.
Dwight Frey as Renfield, with his maniacal laughter and insatiable appetite for flies and spiders, is a welcome comedic presence; as is Charles Gerrard as Martin, Renfield’s Cockney asylum keeper, continually marveling at how easily Renfield escapes from his room.
Reflecting on his empty, forever needy immortality, Dracula allows a glimpse at the last shreds of his humanity as he ardently declares, “To die, to be really dead — that much be glorious!” Questioned about this gruesome notion, the Count adds with malignant menace, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
To save us from the worthless insignificance of these “worse things” is precisely why the Word was made flesh.
The sequel, “Dracula’s Daughter,” with Gloria Holden in the title role, opens on a note of hope. In the crypt of Carfax Abbey Professor van Helsing (having sprouted three inches of hair like a Chia Pet) is arrested for having just murdered Count Dracula. Van Helsing quickly turns to his friend, eminent psychiatrist Dr Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), to help him convince the judge and jury that vampires really exist so he couldn’t murder a man who died 500 years earlier.
While Dr Garth ponders van Helsing’s defense, the Countess Marya Zaleska makes the case moot by stealing her Dad’s corpus delecti. Incinerating it in a vampire funeral Marya hopes that, with Dracula no longer extant, she’s free of the curse of vampirism.
She isn’t. Asking her manservant, Sandor (Irving Pitchel), what he sees in her eyes, he replies, “Death.” And he continues to find victims to feed Marya’s blood lust.
Meeting Dr. Garth at a party, Marya wonders if psychiatry will work. It doesn’t, but she develops a yen for the doctor who resists her advances, to his misfortune.
The movie’s somber tone enhances its lesson: Countess Zaleska knows God exists and is aware of the power of the Cross. Yet she runs after worldly solutions to solve her spiritual malaise instead of turning to Christ, imploring His aid to keep her from sin. It’s a lesson for our times. As the Lord told St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
“The Son of Dracula” brings Lon Chaney, Jr. to the role of Count Alucard, invited to Louisiana by Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) — it’s not explained how although it’s said she has always displayed a morbid taste for the occult. Katherine’s father soon dies, leaving his money to his other daughter, Claire (Evelyn Ankers), and his plantation, Dark Oaks, to Katherine.
She and Frank (Robert Paige) are childhood sweethearts, but Katherine suddenly marries Alucard. Frank confronts them and shoots the Count. The bullets pass through him and strike Katherine. Terrified, Frank flees.
Word gets round to the sheriff. He visits Dark Oaks the next day and finds Katherine’s body laid out in a coffin. Naturally, he arrests Frank.
Night falls and a bat flies into Frank’s cell. Materializing, Katherine confesses that she never loved Alucard. It is all a plot for her and Frank to live together forever because Alucard is really — need I say? — and tells Frank how to destroy him.
Enlivened by some archly comedic spots “Son of Dracula” is an effective cautionary tale for all who think the occult is just fun and games. The Catholic Church earnestly warns everyone to beware any involvement with anything in which the power of evil is exalted.
“Nosferatu,” the silent, German Expressionistic classic, is “Dracula” in all but name. Anyone used to Bela Lugosi’s polished performance will be shocked to see the vampire, Count Orlock, played by Max Schreck, as a rat-like wraith with a pestilential aura. This is certainly a film to see to learn how cinematic art developed over the decades. While the film is primitive in certain respects, it still tells its story quite powerfully.
God provided human beings not only with the desire to think beyond a present reality but also blessed us with imagination and the ability to change and improve reality. In other word, like our Creator we, too, create.
From machines like the wheel to the internet, from tools like the backscratcher to the electron microscope and beyond, there seems to be no limit to the good and useful items which can be thought up and brought into actuality to better our common existence.
But there is a limit. It is the limit God places on Himself when it comes to creating, the virtue of prudence. Having the ability to create something, yet realizing that its creation could be open to evil purposes seems not to bother many people any longer.
Today we have a crop of relativists, people for whom nothing is bad, merely “inappropriate” — a word which has replaced “wrong,” “sinful” and “evil” even in Catholic circles.
“In the Island of Lost Souls,” originally a story by H. G. Wells, Charles Laughton is a scientist who makes animals into facsimile humans. In “The Black Cat,” Boris Karloff has a collection of embalmed women in glass caskets and revels in being a Satanist, the character being based on the infamous occultist, Aleister Crowley. Both of these films have harrowing scenes which many people find repulsive. They are mesmerizing movies but not for the faint of heart.
“The Invisible Man,” another Wells novel, is really more in the realm of science fiction, with the horror incidental. Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains in his first U.S. film role) is a chemist who’s rendered himself invisible using the drug Monocane. While seeking an antidote he doesn’t realize that the drug is changing him into a megalomaniac. Telling his associate, Dr. Kemp, how he plans world rule, “We'll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men — well, just to show we make no distinction.”
Run to earth, on his deathbed, Griffin confesses to his sweetheart, “Flora … I failed. I meddled in things that man must leave alone.”
This is the usual conclusion reasonable people arrive at.
I’m running out of room so I’ll just say that “The Mummy” and “The Wolf Man” both have simple themes of good and evil, similar to “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” Think “Hansel and Gretel Meet the Pharaohs” and “The Frog Prince Grows Fangs.” Moral: Avoid paganism and its culture of death. Nothing beneficial ever comes of it.
Karloff and Chaney, Jr. sat for hours while made up was applied every day of shooting for these roles as the Mummy and Wolf Man, respectively, but these creatures are beyond the scope of Christian belief. Just sit back, pop some corn, and enjoy the yarns as well as the special effects — which are still impressive.
Sean M. Wright is a member of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita. He presents workshops and enrichment courses in Catholic topics in history, art and theology at parishes throughout the archdiocese.