It’s the way of the world.
In the 1950s Halloween preparations used to begin the last weekend of October, when a giant box of future jack o’lanterns appeared in the local grocery store. This cued parents to visit the basement or garage to air out the old cheesecloth costumes from years past.
Home window decorations appeared on the 29th or 30th of the month. Anything earlier was rushing the season. And Halloween wasn’t complete until the local broadcast of “Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein” after school on the 31st. Now, as Christmas permeates December, so Halloween pervades October.
One day I may develop a theology of horror explaining how and why God sometimes scares the willies out of us to bring us to our senses so he can save us. Until then Your Humble Scribe is here to conclude our month-long overview of Turner Classic Movies’ salute to the scary. The final batch of scream-fests, both ghostly and ghastly, shockers and schlockers, leads off with “Mark of the Vampire,” Bela Lugosi’s second film outing as a one of the undead.
MGM, watching Universal’s horror movies rake in the box-office green, dusted off Lon Chaney’s 1927 silent movie, “London after Midnight.” Chaney played a vampire who’s really a detective in disguise. As rewritten, Lugosi and Carol Borland are properly creepy as a vampire father and daughter put out of business by Lionel Barrymore as a pseudo-Van Helsing. While the film drags occasionally, there are some decent plot twists, with a decidedly surprise ending.
Long before governments began wasting taxpayer funds sponsoring social engineering policies in answer to environmentalism’s religious dogma, Abraham Merritt’s novel “Burn Witch, Burn!” solved the problem about protecting the Earth’s limited resources in the face of a growing population: simply reduce everyone to one-sixth its size!
While that’s the purpose of the formula, the premise of MGM’s 1936 version, “The Devil Doll,” has Lionel Barrymore as a criminal escaping Devil’s Island, where he’s obtained a reducing formula. Spending over half the film disguised as an old lady — that alone is reason to watch — the usually kindly Lionel hunts down the business associates who framed him to inject them with the reducing serum. So far, so good, yet the plot thickens. Barrymore has to dodge the mad scientist’s widow, who’s out to inject Lionel, blaming him for the death of her husband. Sit back and enjoy the fun.
The disturbing incidents in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” qualify this film as a real shocker. Two grand dames of the silver screen, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, chew the scenery for more than two hours. With the over-the-top presence of Victor Buono thrown in for good measure, this is not a move for the squeamish.
The original “Little Shop of Horrors” launched Roger Corman’s career as the successor of William Castle — more about this gleefully tacky filmmaker later. Corman became the most successful producer of cheaply-made, laughably written, schlocky horror tales. Beware plants yelling, “Feed me! I’m hungry!”
At the end of “Village of the Damned,” everyone thought they’d seen the last of the respectful-yet-murderous kids with the oversize eyes that mesmerize. Then came the sequel: “Children of the Damned.” “Beware the eyes that paralyze!” read the tagline on lobby cards. It’s well-made more of the same.
“House of Dark Shadows,” followed by “Night of Dark Shadows,” brought the tongue-in-cheek daytime TV horror soap opera to the big screen. The film is graced by the presence of veteran actress Joan Bennett, with Jonathan Frid as the emotionally tortured vampire, Barnabas Collins. Fans will enjoy the proceedings.
Much more to my taste is the film “And Then There Were None,” surely the most suspenseful mystery film ever made. Taken from Agatha Christie’s bestselling novel — more than 100,000,000 copies sold to date — she said it was the hardest to write.
Ten strangers are invited to a private island estate belonging to their host, U. N. Owen. Owen’s recorded message informs the visitors that he has invited them solely to murder — rather, to execute — them for past, unpunished crimes. A deadly cat-and-mouse game ensues. Without being a horror movie per se, the suspense will still make your hair stand on end. Do not miss this one!
A more prosaic Hammer horror, filled with Technicolor gore, is “Taste the Blood of Dracula” starring Christopher Lee. The screenwriters were working overtime to devise new means to resuscitate the Count. In his previous outing, Dracula was destroyed, impaled by a large metal cross before turning to dust.
The new entry shows how an English businessman traveling in Transylvania, dazed after being thrown from his carriage, happens upon the scene. He collects the bloody detritus, along with Drac’s cape, ring and broach, and decamps back to Old Blighty.
In London, Lord Courtney, in company with three other rakehells, purchases the objects. At an abandoned church Courtney mixes his blood with the dried blood of the vampire and drinks. Thrown into convulsions Courtney is killed by his companions who flee. Just in time, since the body transforms into Dracula. Diabolical mayhem follows.
In “Dracula AD 1972,” the screenwriters reunite Sir Christopher’s Dracula with Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing for the first time since 1958. In 1872, Dracula and Van Helsing battle atop a runaway horse-drawn carriage. It overturns. A broken wheel’s wooden spoke pierces Drac; Van Helsing dies of his wounds. Their bodies are buried in the graveyard adjoining a nearby church. A century passes.
Jessica Van Helsing, granddaughter of Lorrimer Van Helsing, grandson of the professor, meets a new friend, Johnny Alucard. He brings some of Jessica’s friends to a black magic rite he conducts at the now abandoned church in whose graveyard Dracula is interred and, well, Drac is back. With Johnny’s help, plots revenge on the Van Helsing family by making Jessica one of his vampire brides.
The silent Scandinavian movie “Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages” follows, an early sort of docudrama, banned in the U.S. in 1922 for what are now quaint scenes of depravity. It purports to show how superstition and lack of medical knowledge contributed to the medieval notion of witches being in league with Satan. Often over-the-top, occasionally anti-Catholic, this exposition of the topic is a historical curiosity and should be watched as such.
On the 31st TCM spends all day serving up a crop of horror flicks. First up is “White Zombie,” a B-movie starring Lugosi as Haitian voodoo master Murder Legende. He’s convinced by Charles to turn Madeleine, Neil’s fiancée, into a zombie for his own pleasure. The scenery-chewing may provoke unintended laughter.
Conversely, “Mad Love,” Peter Lorre’s first U.S. movie, set the tone for the rest of his career. Adapting French novelist Maurice Renard’s book, The Hands of Orlac, Lorre is masterful as the brilliant Dr. Gogol, who transplants the hands of a murderer in place of the hands of a concert pianist that were crushed in an accident. This is an early form of psychological thriller.
“Dementia 13” is a kind of Roger Corman hand-me-down: a gory, depressing story of an entire family’s descent into dementia. The film would be completely forgotten were it not written and directed in 1963 by a very young Francis Ford Coppola.
The film “13 Ghosts” begins a string of haunted house yarns on TCM. It was producer-director William Castle’s less-than-perfect excursion into 3D, complete with orange-and-blue-lensed cardboard spectacles in order to see (or not see) the ghosts. With more laughable special effects than usual in a Castle film, familiar actors such as motherly Rosemary DeCamp and suave John van Dreeland are saving graces. It also stars the wonderful Margaret Hamilton as the enigmatic housekeeper, whom the children believe is a witch. Now where would they get that idea?
“House of Wax” was the first 3-D film released in color. Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), a talented sculptor, has a disconcerting habit of killing people, coating the corpses with wax and placing them on display in historical and macabre scenes to customer raves. A remake of 1933’s “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” the story is more murder-mystery than scare fare yet the chills are real.
“They’re heeeere!” There’s nothing more potently creepy than a child’s imagination and “Poltergeist” manages to capture such imaginings in a way reminiscent of Val Lewton’s atmospheric “Curse of the Cat People.” It’s a thoroughly enjoyable, scary tale of shade, shadow and the supernatural from Steven Spielberg.
The 1932 comedy/horror story, “The Old, Dark House,” adheres pretty closely to the J.B. Priestly novel about the decidedly odd Femm family from which it was adapted. But the visuals are all James Whale’s, the genius responsible for directing “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” For instance, for no reason pertaining to the story, Gloria Stuart — the older Rose in “Titanic”— tells how he had her change into a filmy white dress so she’d look like a white flame as Boris Karloff chased through the corridors. Charles Laughton, Melvin Douglas and Raymond Massey, all at the start of their illustrious film careers, add to the fun.
“The Haunting” is the quintessential Halloween movie. Actors Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Julie Harris portray members of a scientific research team. Sensitive instruments are set up in a reputedly haunted house and they spend the night to test it for spookiness. And then the sounds begin.
Even when shown on television the oppressive atmosphere is overwhelming. No specter is ever seen but I know people who refuse to watch the film at home alone. If you watch it in the dark, watch it with friends.
TCM’s next film follows along similar lines, although not as expertly produced. Still, it maintains a sinister silliness. I speak of William Castle’s “The House on Haunted Hill.” Once again a stalwart band is assembled to spend the night in a reputedly haunted house. Although Vincent Price had made “House of Wax” six years earlier, this film established him as the midcentury’s monarch of menace.
“The Cat and the Canary” further dispels the gloom. First produced as a mystery/comedy on Broadway in 1922, this production, an early Bob Hope feature released in 1939, was already the story’s third incarnation on celluloid. Played mainly for laughs, the story is about an eclectic group called to a gloomy mansion for the reading of a will. Paulette Goddard finds she is to inherit all — if she survives. And so the wheels for her demise are set in motion.
The story was so popular it spawned a sequel of sorts in 1940 with “The Ghost Breakers,” an even better movie. Both films inspired Walt Disney to add the now iconic Haunted Mansion to Disneyland.
William Castle meets Hammer Films with the 1963 version of “The Old, Dark House.” It is less a remake than a reimagining of J.B. Priestly’s saga of the exceedingly odd Femm family. Most critics determined that it did not fare well when compared to the original.
Castle directed Tom Poston as the lone American among an excellent British cast of comedy veterans, including familiar faces Robert Morley, Joyce Grenfell, Janette Scott, Mervyn Johns and Peter Bull. While it certainly does not approach the excellence of the 1932 version, Your Humble Scribe agrees with The Authorized History of Hammer Films, which found the movie “strangely endearing.”
TCM’s final fright flick is “The Bat,” a version of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1908 suspense novel “The Circular Staircase.” Agnes Moorehead plays a mystery writer in a small town beset by a murderer known only as The Bat. Vincent Price plays a doctor engaged in research on bats. In addition, her neighbors are scouring the town for the location of $1 million worth of stolen bank securities. Are the activities of The Bat somehow connected to the search?
Our Gang fans take note: this film is notable for being the final screen appearance of Darla Hood, the little girl with whom Spanky and Alfalfa were so enamored.
Until next time, Happy Halloween!
Sean M. Wright is an Emmy nominated television writer, novelist and cookbook author. He presents workshops and Faith Formation courses on Catholic topics at parishes throughout the archdiocese.