“I just love old movies!” Wendy Lucas said, laughing brightly after I disclosed that I’d be writing on vintage scary cinema. “Especially those old Universal horror movies — what fun!”
Black-and-white celluloid is like adrenaline to Wendy, the new director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Santa Clarita. As members of the RCIA team we’ve occasionally toyed with the idea of showing old movies to illustrate Gospel truths and facets of Catholic history or morality.
Movies produced during the gold and silver ages of Hollywood cinema included suspenseful melodramas, lush romances, epic spectacles, baffling mysteries, broad slapstick, farce and witty drawing-room comedies.
And then there were the B-movie horror films that kept Universal — and a few other minor studios — afloat in the 1940s.
Given a resurgence in the 1950s, filmed by even cheesier seat-of-the-pants production companies, horror films still raked in the cash. They were shown at drive-ins, primarily for teenagers, and at Saturday matinees, primarily for children.
Parents could watch them with their kids without moral embarrassment, because popular culture in the United States was still centered on Judeo-Christian concepts of right and wrong. Each movie ended with evil vanquished — at least until the next sequel.
This month Turner Classic movies continues to showcase films that demonstrate how some low-budget horror can be effective, including with Czech-born actor Francis Lederer in “The Return of Dracula.” Lederer spent the 1940s as a suave, dashing European noble, conman or Nazi, usually in second-string productions. As Dracula he acquits himself rather well within the constraints of the film’s miniscule budget. With his tousled hair he points to the more sensual Frank Langella version. It aids in his looking like the Czech artist he kills on a European train so he can take over his identity.
Seeking new blood, Dracula takes the train to California, passing the Statue of Liberty along the way, where a blind girl “sees” Dracula in her dreams. It’s a unique touch which, unhappily, goes nowhere. The film’s laidback first half gives way to a traditional “We gotta find him before he kills again” chase. Don’t expect anything profound here.
Next, going back to the 1940s, is “House of Dracula,” Universal’s sequel to House of Frankenstein, one of the studio’s inimitable monster rallies. This time Count Dracula flies over to Dr. Edelmann’s castle-sanatorium, formerly Dr. Frankenstein’s branch office, to cure his vampirism through a series of blood transfusions. Sure. Why not?
Fatefully, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) checks in that night seeking a cure for his lycanthropy before the full moon rises. When told the cure will take time, Larry, now the Wolf Man, decides to kill himself and leaps into the sea from the castle parapet. As fate would have it, the tide washes him ashore, into a cave where Larry finds the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) recovering from his previous cinematic battle.
Dracula appears in the person of gaunt, moustached, top-hatted John Carradine. His richly stentorian baritone lovingly wraps itself around words and syllables with luciferian intensity, while spending much of his time trying to put the bite on the doctor’s pretty daughter.
As a boy I thought Carradine looked like more like a depraved version of Mandrake the Magician, hero of the comic strips, but lacking his power. In the comics one often read how “Mandrake gestured hypnotically” to immobilize villains. Dracula relied on diabolical charm to overpower victims. It seemed too easy to resist Carradine’s temptation.
Going from the not-so-sublime to the patently absurd, the 1966 film “Billy the Kid Versus Dracula” really tests the willing suspension of disbelief. Thirty-six-year-old Chuck Courtney as the 20-year-old Billy is difficult enough. Carradine, then 60, as the preternaturally youthful bloodsucker is just too much of a stretch.
Next is the silent cinematic wonder “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Students at film schools study and examine this movie, considered the greatest example of German expressionism. Film expert Jeff Saporito writes that movie historians “are agreed that this movie gave birth to the horror genre in a way that no preceding film had. It’s likely to be explored … for generations to come as one of the major influencers in the establishment of early cinema.”
Don’t let all the academic descriptions scare you away from watching Caligari. Even with subtitles it is an amazing movie.
“Cat People,” Val Lewton’s masterpiece, has a reputation for creepiness that has grown substantially over the years. Lewton’s stock-in-trade was the cautionary tale. With director Jacques Touneur, he brought a new aspect to horror films — the terror you can’t see may be more disturbing than the monster you can see.
Simone Simon plays a beautiful Serbian in Manhattan who, because of an ancient curse, believes that any physical intimacy with the man she loves (Kent Smith) will turn her into a panther. But does she? If you’ve never seen this film before the use of shadow, unexpected sounds and darkness should scare you silly.
“The Body Snatcher” nears the classical approach to a fright fest. Helmed by then-novice director Robert Wise the film is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, inspired by the activities of Burke and Hare, the infamous Victorian grave-robbers. They murdered people, dug up the bodies then sold them to doctors for training in dissection. The repulsive nature of the incidents related notwithstanding the movie is more suspenseful mystery than terror tale.
In 1871, John Gray (Boris Karloff), washed out of medical school, is now a cabbie. As a sideline, he supplies his friend, Dr. Todd MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), with bodies for the doctor’s dissection classes. MacFarlane, an otherwise honest doctor, tries to end the corpse-retrieval service but it’s too lucrative for Gray, who threatens to implicate “Toddy” in his nefarious activities. Ah, what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive.
The film features an excellent performance by the usually villainous Daniell, cast against type. It’s amusing to watch his reactions when annoyingly twitted by Karloff as “Toddy,” recalling their earlier association in medical school. Karloff, according to Wise, “felt that the role ... was a chance for him to prove that he was something more than just a monster out to scare people, that he was an actor.”
With “Cat People’s” success, Lewton, teamed again with Tourneur, used many of the same cinematic techniques to chill audiences with “I Walked with a Zombie,” in which might be seen a passing connection with Jane Eyre.
Set in Haiti much of the horror is found in the voodoo practiced by the natives working on a sugar cane plantation. Although some scenes might appear racially insensitive by today’s standards, the production tries to present an honest appraisal of the island’s black natives with a minimum of stereotypical behavior.
The inclusion of the story of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian and scenes of a voodoo ceremony should put Catholic viewers on alert to the fact that Catholic culture and beliefs are perversely included in voodoo, santeria and other animistic religions.
“The Seventh Victim” is about Mary Gibson Kim Hunter, returning to New York City to learn that her older sister, Jacqueline, has sold the family cosmetics company to her business partner and disappeared. After several adventures Mary finds that Jacqueline was last seen at the Dante Inn. Her sister’s new social circle is not quite as upstanding as one might think. Jacqueline has become disenchanted with them, and has tried to leave but cannot. This is a Satanist cult. Only six people have attempted to leave; all have died. Jacqueline is to become the seventh.
The Satanists, presented as being quite ordinary people, don’t resort to brutality. They prefer browbeating and intense intimidation to badger apostates into suicide. It’s a harrowing, quite suspenseful tale leaving the viewer wondering how empty a life has become for someone to resort to calling on Satan to make sense of his or her existence.
With “Bedlam,” Lewton and Karloff again left the two-dimensional horror film genre for a thoroughly researched plunge into the atmosphere of an English insane asylum, circa 1760. Formerly the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem, the monks and paupers being tended to were evicted so the government would have a hospital to “care” for mental patients. Many of these, we discover, have been traumatized by frequent beatings and victimization by the sadistic master George Sims (Karloff, a fictionalized version of infamous head physician, John Monro), who regularly conducts paying visitors through the asylum as a kind of freak show.
Mortified by what she sees, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) attempts to gain more humane treatment for the inmates. Sims neutralizes her efforts, bribing a court to pronounce her insane and sentence her to the Bedlam asylum. Through her compassionate efforts to care for inmates and clean up the filthy conditions, she gains their trust. When Sims sees this, he threatens Nell with his “strongest cure,” but the inmates overpower and dispose of him.
“The Leopard Man” was another of those titles RKO’s execs threw at Lewton, telling him to provide a story, screenplay, cast and film it. With Jacques Touneur again directing, writers Ad-el Way and Edward Dein adapted Cornell Woolrich’s novel “Black Alibi,” a yarn about an escaped leopard in a sleepy, New Mexico border town.
Press agent Dennis O’Keefe and a nightclub star, Margo, attempt to find the beast being used as a gimmick to attract customers. An exercise in unrelenting suspense, this film once again uses light and shadow to enhance its feeling of dread, which is not really resolved during a celebration of the Day of the Dead.
Director Martin Scorsese’s sincerely appreciative tribute to Val Lewton is worth watching for horror devotees and all film fans to learn more about this long unsung master of the macabre.
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.