For Catholics, October is the month devoted to praying the most holy rosary. The faithful are encouraged particularly to implore the good and gracious God to grant peace in our lives and to the whole world.
In an oddly fascinating dichotomy, for the last 40 years or so, most of the rest of the population of the United States becomes prepped to celebrate October as a merry month of the macabre, as evidenced by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) devoting the entire 31 days to movie monsters, madness and morbidity.
Dracula had been developed as a vehicle for the silent movies’ genius of the ghoulish, Lon Chaney. His death drove Universal’s production chiefs, who’d originally nixed the idea of having a Hungarian actor play a Romanian vampire, to reconsider their decision, finally hiring Bela Lugosi whose portrayal of the sanguinary count had been a triumph on Broadway. It was a fateful decision.
For Chaney, already known for his diversity of roles, it would have been just another role. For Lugosi it was another matter: as Basil Rathbone had so perfectly fit the popular conception of Sherlock Holmes, so did Lugosi become the embodiment of Count Dracula.
Over 25 years later, despite his success as Dracula, Christopher Lee shied awat from the character, refusing to play the Count in Hammer’s second vampire film, “Brides of Dracula.” He was only too aware of how Lugusi’s success had ruined his career.
Still, he returned to the role in 1965, when Hammer upped his remuneration. In the next few years Lee’s fears were realized — he became Dracula to a new generation of moviegoers, finding it impossible to convince studios to consider him for other roles.
Lee lived in West Los Angeles during the 1970s and 80s. We became acquainted since he had been cast as Sir Henry in the 1959 “Hound of the Baskervilles,” also impersonating Sherlock Holmes in a 1962 film (and I, a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, led the local Sherlock Holmes Society).
As Lee told me, he blessed Billy Wilder, the great writer- director, for casting him as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” Lee, in fact, took pride in the fact that he’s the only actor who’s portrayed both Holmes brothers. This broke the typecasting. He went on to enjoy a fine career and gain a knighthood, becoming Sir Christopher, for his many fine portrayals.
TCM’s scare fare includes “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” which begins with the finale of “The Horror of Dracula” — Van Helsing traps Drac with sunlight and he collapses in ashes. Giving Van Helsing a rest, Hammer presented Catholic priests duking it out with the Count in the next two series entries.
Having Christopher Lee back in the harness, Hammer’s production team had to devise a way to get the Count back in circulation. The answer? Trap an unwary British tourist visiting Castle Dracula with his wife and another couple, have a servant kill him and mix his blood with Drac’s ashes, which had been conveniently swept up in a dust pan and deposited in the crypt below. The blood reinvigorates the ashes, reconstituting not only Dracula, but his suit and cloak as well.
Drac’s usual attempt to seduce a beautiful woman ensues, with Barbara Shelley, England’s Queen of Scream, his target. Andrew Keir as the burly Father Sandor comes to her rescue, hunting down Dracula and trapping him on the icy moat surrounding his castle. Did you know that a vampire can’t cross flowing water? That’s what makes the ending of this installment so chilling.
But you can’t keep a good vampire down and, with “Dracula has Risen from the Grave,” the saga continues. A faithless priest (Ewan Hooper) trooping about Castle Dracula stumbles, falls, strikes his head on a rock and knocks himself out. Blood flows from his scalp and seeps down a rivulet leading to the moat where the vampire’s body was left in the last film.
Voile! The blood reaches Dracula and he’s back in business. With the priest as his guide, Drac hunts down the monsignor who exorcised his castle. He kidnaps that cleric’s niece because it wouldn’t be a Hammer film without a heaving bosom, here provided by Veronica Carlson. It goes without saying that, come the thrilling climax, the priest regains his faith and Dracula perishes — until the next sequel.
It might be a trifle overblown to suggest that these restorations of the vampire are parodies of Christ’s Resurrection since no one with half a brain can take these films that seriously. Yet this is a Catholic publication and I think mention of the seeming parallel is expected of me.
The next TCM film we explore is “The Monster,” starring the remarkably talented master of disguise, Lon Chaney. Comic actor Johnny Arthur plays an aspiring detective, a timorous young man forced into action, as Bob Hope would later perfect the type, with humor and accidental heroics. Johnny faces Dr. Gustave Ziska (Chaney) with his nutty henchmen Caliban, Rigo and Daffy Dan. They kidnap Betty, Johnny’s love, with Amos, his fellow clerk at the local general store. It is Dr. Ziska’s hope to exchange Betty’s soul scientifically with that of Amos.
“The Monster,” regarded as one of the original “mad doctor” and “old dark house” films that proved so successful in the sound era, remains a suspenseful story with humorous touches that’s still quite enjoyable.
And it wouldn’t be Halloween without Vincent Price. Enjoy his most obscure, but superbly acted role in “The Baron of Arizona,” based on the true story of James Reavis. In the 1870s, the brilliant Reavis came within a hair’s breath of swindling the United States out of the entire territory of Arizona. It’s a fascinating, finely-crafted jewel of a movie — arguably Price’s best film characterization.
Next is “The Innocent.” Henry James’ psychological novella, “Turn of the Screw,” was turned into a truly frightening Gothic masterpiece.
“Diary of a Madman” is told in flashback. After conducting the funeral of Simon Cordier (Vincent Price again!), the priest gathers the judge’s friends and reads from Cordier’s diary to explain why a particularly unbecomingly, bilious green light enveloped the judge as he sought to fight off an evil presence. As an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's short story "Le Horla" written in 1887, one wishes it had been better done.
“Curse of the Demon” follows. The screenplay taken from M.R. James' story ''Casting the Runes'' has Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton’s collaborator, directing another cinematic homerun. A singularly outstanding British shocker, it stars Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden. Investigating the death of a friend he learns that Dr. Julian Karswell (that excellent British actor, Niall MacGinni) heads a particularly vicious satanic cult. It becomes a game of cat-and-mouse with one twist after another. This is another movie best seen with friends.
“Carnival of Souls” is next. Mary Henry (Candace Hillgoss) witnesses a car accident that disturbs her so much she moves to another city where she is drawn to a carnival — which is filled with ghouls. Written somewhat along the same lines as the old “Twilight Zone” episode about the young woman on a cross-country trip who sees a hitchhiker everywhere she stops (“I believe you’re going my way?”), Mary can’t shake a sinister young men who’s pursuing her.
Shot on a miniscule budget of $39,000 in 1962, this little gem of a horror flick was underappreciated when it was released. It has since gained an admiring following and influenced filmmakers, including David Lynch and George Romero.
Now comes 1974’s “From Beyond the Grave.” This was the last of four terror anthology films from Amicus Productions. The company’s output was often mistaken for Hammer’s better-known output because of similarities in art direction, color photography and horror themes; not to mention the presence of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in various roles.
Here, Cushing plays a particularly accommodating antique store owner whose clientele walks off with what they think are bargains, but … well, therein hangs the horror of each of the four tales. A plethora of well-known British actors populate each story, all of whom seem to delight in the sometimes hokey proceedings.
Sean M. Wright is an Emmy nominated television writer, novelist and cookbook author. He presents workshops and courses on Catholic topics at parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.