If you watch enough horror, eventually you start to realize that a monster isn’t just a monster. The supernatural is always a conduit for something completely natural in the real world, something still terrifying but blown into monstrous proportions by screenwriters, directors, make up geniuses, and special effects mavens. When Steve asked me to put together a list of my five favorite monsters, he surely didn’t realize he’d be getting a list straight from Durkheim or Foucault. But there you have it. Here are my five favorite movie monsters, and their contextual sociological meaning.
5. George Romero’s Zombies
The zombie genre has been overrun with a lot of brain-dead films. But at their very best, zombies are a wonderful vehicle for social commentary. Of course, sometimes this can be used in outrageous and embarrassing ways (see: White Zombie, 1932, and its interpretation of tribal culture). For George Romero in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, zombies reached their apex of sociological meaning. Granted, it isn’t subtle but that’s not the point. Its lack of subtlety endows the film with gobs of humor as Romero mercilessly skewers 20th century America and its suburbanized mass-consumer culture. The timing was perfect, coming just as the baby boomer generation was departing the free-wheeling, rebellious hippie era and entering the United States of Reagan. With one brilliant decision- placing his film in a mall- Romero asks his generational cohorts, “What happened to you guys, man? You used to be cool.” Lousy yuppies.
The original Gojira (1954), and really all of the classic radioactive monsters cooked up by Toho Studios, are Sociology 101. In the post-World War II film world, Italy nurtured neo-realism to illustrate that, despite their involvement with Hitler, they too suffered on the homefront. The French fixated on the horrors of the war. However, in Japan, something else was brewing. Because of the atomic bomb, they took on real life horrors that no other civilization had ever witnessed. If ever a situation needed to be shrouded in metaphor before reaching the big screen, it was Japan in the post-World War II era. Enter Godzilla, a radioactive monster who arrives from the sea, then cuts a swath of destruction that includes several islands, the navy, and finally reaches the mainland. In other words, Godzilla was the US military, and the radioactive pollution is tied directly to it. Godzilla and the Monsters (which sounds like a band name created by Gary King) were a brilliant snapshot of exactly what terrified Japan in the 1950s.
3. Frankenstein’s Monster
What I find fascinating about the cinematic Frankenstein’s monster is that he has strong roots in at least two other places. The first and most obvious is Mary Shelley’s novel, which the film borrows from thematically quite a bit. The second is the classic Jewish golem. Both involve taking inanimate matter and re-animating it into new life. And in both instances, the new life wreaks havoc, most notably on the maker. The only major step from golem to Frankenstein’s monster is the involvement of science- in particular, the science of cutting open corpses and seeing how they tick in the 19th century- with just a dash of a God complex.
Both of those concepts were absolutely horrifying to people from the 19th century on into the early 20th century when James Whale brought the monster to life on the big screen. It resonated especially in America, a very devout Christian country whose moral sensibilities would rock to their very foundation at the notion of a mad scientist playing God. And tying medical science into the equation doubles down on fears of the era. While medical science had progressed reasonably well in the 18th and 19th centuries, it wasn’t until doctors started opening up bodies and using corpses that real progress was made. To the average schmoe on the street in the late 19th and early 20th century, this is a horrific concept- taking a loved one and ripping apart their entire earthly being for corporeal knowledge. “MEDICAL SCIENCE IS ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE! AND NOW IT’S GOING TO DESTROY US ALL!!!”
2. Japanese Ghosts
Ok, ok… a ghost isn’t a monster, per se. But it’s still a fun and scary enough concept to make someone go boom boom in their britches. The beauty of the Japanese ghost story is how deeply rooted it is in Japanese culture. Unlike Godzilla and the radioactive monsters, there was no natural disaster that created the folklore of Japanese ghosts. No, these supernatural beings are actually quite natural. They’re tied to the importance of family in Japan. Traditionally, Japanese families are protected by their deceased ancestors as part of a social bargain. The living family gives the deceased a proper burial, with proper funereal rites, and the deceased return to keep harm away from their living ancestors. If the dead aren’t given a proper burial, however, or if they die violently, all hell breaks loose.
As you can see, this process leaves a massive chasm open for ghosts in Japanese culture. They can be protectors, they can be harbingers of doom, and they can wreak havoc. And the entire theme is tied to something that every family deals with quite regularly. Everyone dies (not just in Japan, but everywhere, except for maybe Batman), and everyone must face the mortality of their family members at some point. It makes the whole concept enormously relatable. Since the Japanese have been perpetuating this mythos for centuries, they understand the entire ghost genre better than anyone. There’s a reason that 95% of the Japanese ghosts you’ve seen wear white and have jet black hair. It’s a practice that goes back centuries, and has continued on through classic Japanese ghost films like Kwaidan (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) and even on to modern films like Ju-On (2002).
1. The Wolf Man (and werewolves in general)
I could write for days about the genius of The Wolf Man (1941). The entire film was allegorical for the Nazi regime. It was written by Curt Siodmak, a Jew exiled from Germany during the rise of the Nazi state. Thematically, it’s all about the way that his seemingly normal German neighbors and friends turned on him almost overnight. They were completely normal when the sun was up. But on the full moon, they turned hideous, seeking to destroy whoever bore the “mark of the beast.” It just so happens that the “mark of the beast” in Siodmak’s film was a pentagram, purposely designed to look like the star of David that marked Jews in Germany during the era.
Digging deeper, it’s biblical. It’s about faulty genes. It’s about the sins of the father, and his father before that, and his father before that, being visited upon the sons. Go another level down and you’ve got the heart of why I love werewolf films in general. They’re metaphors for transformation, for finding the deep, dark, terrifying parts of our own souls that we didn’t even know existed. These aren’t just monsters. They’re humans, wrestling with the better angels of their nature and ultimately losing in appalling ways. In Wolf (1994), it’s the depths that he’ll go for survival and success. In Ginger Snaps (2000) and quite a few others, it’s the shocking journey through puberty into adulthood. It’s a delicious built-in character arc that makes the characters more enticing to us, the viewer… and ultimately reminds us that the scariest thing out there is the damage that we can cause all by ourselves.
“Is it dead or alive!? Human or inhuman!?” Check out the eerie trailer for Universal Studios’ classic 1932 monster movie The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff. It’s perfect for Halloween night!
And now, for the results of the Halloween horror review poll. As of right now, it appears that we have a TIE between The Uninvited and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. So, the poll will remain open until OCTOBER 25TH. Make sure to cast more votes so we get settle on a winner!
by Steve Habrat
If there is one thing that Universal Studios can do, it’s iconic monsters. In 1923, the studio released The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a Lon Chaney vehicle that was the first monster movie off their assembly line. Two years later, Universal followed up the successful The Hunchback of Notre Dame with director Rupert Julian’s classic The Phantom of the Opera, another Chaney picture that kicked off the monster craze that really hit its stride with 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein. Based upon Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera is perhaps one of the best entries in Universal’s monster series—a grand and luxurious gothic tale rich with heavy shadows, spooky snaking passageways, and ink-black underground rivers. The Phantom of the Opera’s million-dollar sets will certainly keep the viewer in a perpetual state of awe, but it’s a small and simple sequence of early color that to this day makes the viewer sit up and take notice. Roaming around all the spectacular sets and flashy color is Chaney’s skull-faced phantom Erik, a spectral figure that seems to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. Often overlooked even by the studio that released it (the film was glaringly absent from the most recent Blu-ray box set and released in a stand-alone edition), The Phantom of the Opera is arguably the best monster movie to come from Universal Studios. And you know what? It’s probably the most horrifying Universal monster movie.
The Phantom of the Opera opens in the Paris Opera House, with the original management in the final stages of signing the grand building over to enthusiastic new managers. Before the original managers depart, they warn the newcomers of a Phantom that terrorizes the opera house. The new managers laugh off the warnings and think nothing more of the eerie stories. The new management soon realizes that the stories of the Phantom may have some truth when opera prima donna Mme. Carlotta (played by Virginia Pearson) brings a letter that appears to be written by the Phantom to their attention. The letter demands that rising opera star Christine Daae (played by Mary Philbin) be able to sing the role of Marguerite. The managers do as the Phantom instructs, but when he makes the same demands again, they ignore him despite his warnings of grave consequences. That night, a horrific accident strikes the theater and leaves the audience in chaos. In the thick of the violence, Christine is abducted by a shadowy figure that whisks her off into the winding catacombs underneath the opera house. Deep in the shadows, the shadowy figure reveals himself as Erik (played by Lon Chaney), a masked man who declares his love for Christine. Ignoring his warnings about touching his mask, Christine decides to see what Erik really looks like, enraging him enough to make her his prisoner. Christine’s mysterious disappearance alerts her lover, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (played by Norman Kerry), who races to find Christine before its too late.
Through its grandiose set design and Expressionist approach, The Phantom of the Opera gets very far on its gothic mood and dank atmosphere. It ushers us into a world of darkness, winding through halls of mirrors, torture chambers, heat rooms, and a lair that features a dusty old organ for our monster to pound away at like a maniac. The film lacks the cartoonish exaggeration of such films as Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but it does stand as an early blueprint for Universal’s other gothic efforts that would accompany the beginning of the 1930s. Director Julian seems to be aware of the quality of his sets, and he doesn’t miss an opportunity to let us explore these catacombs. After a while, you feel like you’ve stepped through the picture and are actually wandering them yourself, and with all of the shifting shadows, you start to wonder if there is more haunting these halls than a psychotic Phantom. This supernatural sensation is carried over into the intertitles, which speak about torture chambers and the opera guests being completely oblivious of the unspeakable horrors that took place in those brick and mortar tombs just below their feet. And then there is the Phantom himself, who seems to be capable of appearing out of thin air and then disappearing in the blink of an eye. No room or corridor seems off limits, which suggests supernatural capabilities despite the fact that Julian shows us all the smoke and mirrors.
Like all the great silent horror films, The Phantom of the Opera features an untouchable performance from its main headlining star, which in the case happens to be famed silent actor Lon Chaney as Erik, the antagonist of the opera house. While many different actors have tried to step into the role of the phantom, not one of them was capable of bringing the glowering madness that Chaney brought to the role. Underneath thick strokes of make-up that he applied, Chaney brings to life a psychopath who drools through curled lips over a young girl petrified by his physical appearance. When seen in shadows, your imagination works overtime filling in the details of his outline. Hidden behind his featureless mask, he seems harmless enough even if he did just drop a chandelier onto a room full of people, spreading his arms in celebration of his liar, and he appears unhinged as he hammers out tunes on his organ. When we finally get a look at that unforgettable face, it gapes in surprise, enraged that his love would dare try to rip that mask from his hideous face. With sunken eyes, rotten teeth, and protruding cheekbones, he resembles a malicious skeleton that points a finger down at the defeated Christine. He bellows about making her his slave and becomes almost bat-like in the way he hovers over her with his cape resembling wings. You won’t be able to take your eyes off of him, even if you would really like to.
Underneath the crushing sets, the busy frames filled with thousands of extras, and the scene-stealing Chaney, the supporting actors struggle to stand out. Philbin’s Christine is pretty enough and she certainly plays up the damsel-in-distress, but you almost forget to pay attention to her when Chaney’s Erik bears down on her. She’s overly melodramatic when she clings to her lover and begs him to save her from the Phantom. Kerry is fine enough of the hero who races to reach Christine, but when he is stuck in the same scene as Arthur Edmund Carewe’s Ledoux, they become interchangeable. Set apart from Kerry, Carewe’s Ledoux is misleadingly sinister as he wanders the catacombs searching for the Phantom. It’s best not to reveal the secret to his character, but just know that the minor twist is pretty interesting. Virginia Pearson owns the room as the imposing prima donna revolted by the Phantom’s demands, and Bernard Siegel adds a bit of unnecessary slapstick comedy as the stagehand Joseph Buquet.
Amidst the gargantuan scope of the picture, The Phantom of the Opera really dazzles with a small color segment that finds Chaney’s Erik crashing an opera party. Dressed in blood red and donning a skull mask, Chaney struts up and down a grand staircase ranting about the ‘Red-Death’ and the blind eye that the guests cast to the suffering that took place in the torture chambers below them. It’s an absolutely amazing scene that pops in harsh reds and deep blacks. Another astounding moment is when the massive chandelier that dangles over the audience’s heads comes plunging down. For 1925, the scene is surprisingly violent, only to be followed up with a shot of a woman getting trampled to death as theatergoers scrambling for their lives. In the final moments of the film, Julian springs one more classic surprise. We find Chaney’s Phantom cornered by a bloodthirsty mob in the streets of Paris. Knowing that he is doomed to die, he unleashes one more surprise on the mob that gives him a good belly laugh. It’s an unforgettable climax that sends a deep chill. Overall, despite a notoriously bad shoot and studio interference, The Phantom of the Opera is a creepy, stylish, and consistent monster movie that deserves to be called a classic. Give even more credit to Chaney, who created one of the most recognizable fiends in monster movie history.
The Phantom of the Opera is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
There was a time when audiences feared the vampire. He wasn’t viewed as a sex symbol, a glittery pretty boy who pined after a pasty high school girl, drove a sports car like Vin Diesel, and (I shudder to even write this) went out in sunlight. No, there was a time when the vampire was a monster, a creature that leapt from the shadows of our nightmares and hovered over us while we slept in the dead of night. He was a representation of plague, disease, and unholy death, a dusty, bat-like spawn of Satan that rested his pale skin in a coffin lined with the soil from the Black Plague. This was even before Bela Lugosi’s cock-eyed Count, a gentleman who politely told his prey, “I vant to suck yer blahood,” while reaching a contorted hand out from the lid of his coffin. Many regard Universal’s 1931 gothic horror film Dracula as the original and definitive vampire film. Anytime someone mentions the name Dracula, the face that comes to mind is Lugosi’s curled smile, widow’s peak, and bulging eyes. While Lugosi may be the poster boy for “scary” and “serious” vampires, perhaps the most terrifying vampire of all is Max Shreck’s Count Orlok, the pointy-eared demon who stalked the mortals of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu. Alive with a creeping supernatural atmosphere that slowly closes around the viewer, menacing shadow play, and a performance that reigns supreme over all other movie monsters, Murnau’s Nosferatu stands as the greatest interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Real estate agent Thomas Hutter (played by Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his boss, Knock (played by Alexander Grannach), to Transylvania to meet with Count Orlok (played by Max Shreck), who has recently purchased a home in the town of Wisborg. Saddened to leave his new wife, Ellen (played by Greta Schroeder), Hutter sets out on a lengthy trip into the country where he meets skittish locals, who all warn of “Nosferatu,” the undead that prowl the woods around Orlok’s castle. Ignoring their warnings, Hutter continues his trip to the castle, but as they get closer, Hutter’s carriage driver gets spooked and refuses to go any further. It doesn’t take long for another carriage to meet Hutter and he is ushered to the front door of the seemingly abandoned castle. Shortly after his arrival, Hutter meets with Count Orlok, a seemingly friendly enough individual who invites Hutter to sit down to a hot meal. As the hours pass within the darkened walls of the castle, Hutter begins to suspect that there may be supernatural forces at play. Meanwhile, Orlok has plans of his own for both Hutter and the new town that is expecting him.
Renamed due to not being able to obtain the rights to Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu is perhaps the most down-to-earth vampire film ever made. There are no undead bloodsuckers morphing into bats or wolves, just a misshapen ghoul with pointy ears and elongated fingers that wanders the empty halls of a dilapidated castle. Vampirism itself is presented as more of an apocalyptic plague rather than a satanic spell, as “plague” rats scatter in the diseased wake of Count Orlok. Every now and then, Murnau suggests that there are unseen supernatural forces at play, especially when Hutter nears Orlok’s secluded dwelling. At first, Murnau just shows animals scurrying about the brush and we get a few shots of what is supposedly a werewolf prowling around looking for prey. Once Hutter is picked up by Orlok’s phantom carriage, a handful of images are presented in the negative, almost like Murnau is ripping the shroud of normalcy off the film itself and showing the supernatural underbelly of the ordinary. He does this again later in film, when he shows us a close up of a spider stalking a tangled insect in its web, a symbolic reference to the spidery Orlok and his helpless prey unable to pull themselves out of his hypnotic web. As far as Orlok goes, the most fantastic aspect about him outside of his striking appearance is how he suddenly appears in front of people, manifesting almost of out thin air.
Then we have Shreck’s hypnotic and measured performance as the dreaded Count Orlok, a monstrous role that could be one of the most iconic in the history of horror. Shreck fills every single movement with malevolence, each rigid twitch of his finger or tilt of his head suggests a very long and hellish life as one of the undead. His fingers curl around like the legs of a spider, at one point jutting out from his waist as he skulks into Hutter’s room for a bloody treat. His ears resemble the ears of a bat and his eyes bulge out of his head, appearing to lack a pupil when viewed through the grainy black and white camera work. Then there are his fangs, which resemble the teeth of a rat as they jut out and hang over his lips. Muranu even compares his physical appearance to that of a Venus flytrap, which he does in a left-field lecture about the plant. There is nothing particularly gentlemanly about him as he hangs in a window and stares out of Ellen, whom he desperately wishes to have his way with. The two share a mesmerizing moment and they are not even in the same shot. Orlok closes in on a sleeping Hutter while Ellen, who is miles away, sees Orlok closing in on her dearly beloved in her nightmare.
While Shreck is actually more of a supporting player rather than top billing, he overshadows every other performer in Nosferatu. Gustav von Wangenheim overacts a bit as Hutter, but you suppose that he has to because he doesn’t have sound to fall back on. He’s the hero of the picture, one that falls victim early on in Orlok’s mansion of madness, but he tries his hardest to prevent the undead evil from spreading his plague. Greta Schroeder’s Ellen possesses a dark side as she suffers from horrific nightmares that cause her to wander the railing of her balcony. Alexander Grannach gets nuts as Knock, Hutter’s employer who snickers with glee over the arrival of his “master.” He has black circles around his eyes and he has a ring of frizzy hair that suggests that he has spent a night or two in the local loony bin. John Gottowt is also present as Professor Bulwer, the man who is basically responsible for pointing out the similarities between Count Orlok and the Venus flytrap.
While the lack of sound may turn many viewers away, those who stick with Nosferatu are in for a terrifying treat. There are a number of sequences that are iconic, especially the sequence aboard a ship that finds Count Orlok slowly picking off the sailors one by one. The sequence culminates in an image that is one of the most blood-curdling moments in horror history. Orlok’s stiff body bursts from a cracked coffin and reveals itself in all its bony glory, only to then make his way to the top deck and stalk the captain. Another sequence that rewards is the final moments of the film, with Orlok locked onto the neck of one of the main characters as the sun slowly shatters the night sky. If the repulsive Orlok doesn’t make you quiver, the seemingly abandoned gothic landscape will certainly make you tense. Atmosphere and architecture become major players in the film, especially the jagged, fang-like homes that comprise the Wiborg skyline and peer into Ellen’s bedroom like jaws waiting to bite into her flesh. Overall, as one of the original monster movies, Nosferatu is a surreal and haunting gothic horror film. The images that Murnau frames are guaranteed to stick with you the rest of your life and Shreck’s performance alone will give you a renewed fear of the dark. Nosferatu will forever remain that greatest and scariest vampire movie ever made.
Nosferatu is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
When we look back upon the silent horror films that were emerging from both Germany and the United States in the 1920s, the visual differences between the two countries are absolutely amazing. Germany used exaggerated gothic landscapes that were Brechtian in their appearance yet brimming with an eerie atmosphere that emitted from the heavy shadows and sharp edges. When we look at the 1920 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s glaringly obvious that what we are watching is taking place on an elaborate stage with a spiked and warped backdrop. Even though there isn’t an ounce of realism to the sets, somehow the film manages to lure us in and chill us with the idea that these images are merely the distortions of a disturbed mind. Even in 1920, it is highly unlikely that audiences weren’t noticing this. Around the same time in America, director John S. Robertson released the spit-shined Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a conservative bore when compared to the German Expressionist offerings. Based upon the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is never able to muster the terrifying mood that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does. It doesn’t even come close. However, despite its beige studio appearance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does benefit from a celebrated performance from John Barrymore, who hunches himself into a hideous monster born from man’s deepest, darkest desires. It’s through Barrymore’s performance alone that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is able to cover its other insipid features.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (played by John Barrymore) is an upstanding citizen. He is a workaholic who locks himself in his lab for hours on end, runs a free clinic in his spare time, and balks at the idea of ever having a good time, which irks his future father-in-law, Sir George Carew (played by Brandon Hurst). George believes that Henry isn’t nearly as good as he pretends to be, and he argues that Henry should indulge some of his darker impulses every now and then. After enduring an endless string of taunts from George and being forced to go to a seedy nightclub, Henry begins working on a potion that can separate man’s two natures into two separate bodies, one that is wholly good and one that embraces a darker lifestyle. Henry tests the potion on himself and he quickly transforms into Edward Hyde, a homely creature that haunts dingy nightclubs and has a fling with an Italian dancer named Gina (played by Nita Naldi). Meanwhile, Henry’s finance, Millicent (played by Martha Mansfield), begins to grow suspicious of her fiancés mysterious absence. She asks her father to help her track him down and get to the bottom of what he is up to. As Millicent and George race to find Henry, Hyde’s behavior grows more and more violent with each passing second.
The early parts of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde find the film struggling to find some form of momentum. Robertson expertly frames Barrymore and his performance as Henry Jekyll, presenting him as a bang-up guy driven by scientific progression and concerned with giving back to the community where he can. He’s likeable enough to point where he really spices up drab scenes of men sitting around a dinner table debating about man’s two natures while one-dimensional intertitles present us with their dialogue. The lack of a good set piece really doesn’t do much for the film either, making the opening twenty minutes a bit of a chore to sit through. Those with short attention spans will be contemplating hitting the stop button. However, after Henry ventures to that nightclub and lays eyes on Gina, things start to pick up. One of two highlight moments come when Henry transforms into Hyde, which was done without the use of special effects. It relies simply on Barrymore’s ability to morph into a horse-faced demon with curled lips revealing what appears to be hundreds of teeth. From here, the depraved behavior of Edward Hyde keeps the action interesting as he creeps into bars and sneaks up behind tipsy gals. Suspense is generated through Hyde’s increasingly erratic behavior, which slowly shifts from perverse to bloodthirsty.
Much of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s success rests on the shoulders of Barrymore, who outshines everyone else as he dances between good and evil. His transformation is tragic, and the poisoning of his squeaky-clean soul does make him all the more sympathetic. The most painful moment for his character comes when he is forced to watch Gina perform her dance routine, a lust slowly blossoming despite the fact that he is engaged to Millicent. With a role that demanded so much, it isn’t difficult to see why Barrymore is the stand out. He is doing more acting than anyone else in the picture. This film could have been a real disaster had the filmmakers not found someone able to glide so smoothly between a malicious parasite and an upstanding do-gooder. Naldi adds a bit of sex appeal to the film as Gina, the erotic Italian dancer who gets tangled up with the hunchbacked Hyde. Martha Mansfield may as well not even be in the picture as Millicent, the angelic love interest who strains to find something useful to do. Brandon Hurst fares a bit better as Sir George Carew, who taunts the mild-mannered Jekyll any chance he gets. He has a particularly unsettling run-in with Jekyll that seriously makes him regret dragging his future son-in-law to that nightclub.
While its cautionary deliberations and square performances weigh it down, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does manage to cough up one of the most horrific moments in horror movie history. Near the end of the film, Henry lies in bed and suffers a hallucination/nightmare that finds Hyde crawling out from under the bed and latching onto the terrified Henry. The effect is masterfully accomplished through layering, but it’s the look of Hyde that really shakes you up. He’s almost resembles a spider-like parasite, with tentacles hanging off of his bump back as he inches up onto the bed to latch to his host. It’s probably the best moment of the entire film and you’re left wishing for more inspired visuals scares like it. As far as the climax goes, there are a few scenes that get the pulse pumping, but it’s nothing compared to the hallucination/dream sequence. Overall, while it’s an artistic bore and it suffers from some sluggish stretches, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde manages to overcome some of its weaknesses through a must-see performance from the gifted Barrymore and a handful of ghoulish scenes that make it a solid watch for cinema buffs, monster aficionados, and horror fans. Just don’t expect a few sleepless nights after your viewing.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
When looking back at the history of the horror film, one of the most essential early entries in the genre is director Robert Wiene’s classic silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Most people are familiar with Wiene’s German Expressionist masterpiece, even if they are not necessarily aware that they are. While some have surely stumbled across one of the many famous images from this surreal horror tale, most have been exposed to the mind-bending visuals through Rob Zombie’s music video for “Living Dead Girl,” which was essentially a condensed remake that starred Zombie and his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Credited as the film that kicked off the German Expressionist movement and single handedly created the twist ending, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a singular work that is alive with insanity and chilling in its dreamlike set design. It’s brimming with gothic points, ghostly performances, and a climax that will most certainly divide viewers. Over the years, the film’s writers have claimed that the story was based around a real life murder that occurred in 1913, and many critics have pointed out that the film is a product of the violence and confusion that gripped post-WWI Germany. One thing that is undeniable is that Wiene grabs you by the hair and rips you down the rabbit hole of insanity, and then leaves you to wander that shadows and alleyways that consistently threaten to rob you of your own grip on reality.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari begins with two men, Francis (played by Friedrich Fehér) and an elderly gentleman, sitting on a park bench when a woman in blinding white wanders past them. As it turns out, this woman is Jane (played by Lil Dagover), Francis’ fiancé with whom he shares a particularly chilling experience. The film then flashes back a few years to the German village of Holstenwall, where Francis lives with his good friend Alan (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Despite the fact that they both are in love with Jane, Francis and Alan decide to attend a carnival. While exploring the scene, the two friends stumble upon a sideshow act run by Dr. Caligari (played by Werner Krauss), who shouts about Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who slumbers in what appears to be a coffin-like cabinet. Dr. Caligari explains that Cesare can see the future and then encourages any brave soul in the crowd to step right up and ask the somnambulist a question. Alan volunteers and asks Cesare how long he will live. The slumbering Cesare awakens and warns Alan that he will be dead by dawn. The next day, Alan is discovered murdered, which immediately makes Francis suspicious of Dr. Caligari and Cesare. Francis alerts the authorities, but the next night, there is another attempted murder. Authorities arrest a small-time criminal, who denies having anything to do with Alan’s murder. Confused and desperate, Francis and the authorities race to find evidence that Dr. Caligari and Cesare are the ones responsible for Alan’s death but their quest to find the killer will lead them to a shocking discovery.
Right from the start, it isn’t hard to tell that something is off about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The text titles appear to the viewer as though they were scribbled by a madman and then decorated with his construction paper creations inspired by his nighttime hallucinations. At times, they seem to be contorting into faces or crosses, the cryptic images of a severely disturbed mind. Francis appears hunched over with dark circles around his eyes, huddled up next to the elderly gentleman who rambles on about spirits being all around them. Seemingly out of nowhere wanders Jane, who appears like a specter that has wandered out of a graveyard just off frame. You half believe that Jane is one of the spirits that the elderly man whispers about, but then Francis begins his spine-tingling tale. From here, Wiene really unleashes the funhouse visuals on the viewer. The characters all wander a village that looks like the brainchild of Salvador Dali if he spent too much time in a graveyard sipping on a glass of absinthe. Windows look like they are melting to the floor, lights twist out of stone like metal snakes, and gothic buildings shoot every which way like thorns on a rose. All of the sets are then plunged into heavy atmospheric shadows that make Holstenwall look like Hell on earth. There isn’t a frame that Wiene doesn’t play up this unforgettable set design, holding a shot long enough for us to in this psychotic dream world brought to life by Hermann Warm. Just to make things creepier, Wiene uses color filters, rich orange to suggest the comfort of late afternoon, or hypnotic blue to imply the bewitching glow of moonlight.
Wandering this prickly maze is one of silent horror’s most recognizable monsters next Max Shreck’s rat-faced Count Orlok and Lon Chaney’s pig-like Phantom. That monster would be Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, the slinky somnambulist salve of Dr. Caligari. Donning a pitch-black body suit, a pasty face, and black circles scribbled around his eyes, Cesare nabs the film’s best and most dramatic scare moment. Wiene cuts to a close up of Cesare as Dr. Caligari coaxes him from his slumber. His eyeballs push against his sealed eyelids when suddenly they pop open with fiendish cognizance. He scans the crowd for a man or woman brave enough to face him, slowly turning his neck to face Alan, whose courageousness is diminishing by the second. It is perhaps the most terrifying moment in the entire film. Close behind it is the sequence where Cesare is sent after Jane in the dead of night. Cesare watches her for a moment, only to slink through the window like a shadow and glide right up to her bed. Jane awakens from her deep sleep and stares directly into the face of a ghoul, who responds to her screams by curling his black lips back into what appears to be a smile, one that screams evil. Just watching Veidt creep along the streets with careful footsteps is enough to give anyone nightmares, especially when you marvel at the otherworldly precision with which he maneuvers through the night.
While the supporting Veidt steals the film in his handful of scenes, the supporting acts are the furthest thing from ordinary. Krauss is equally frightening as the squat Dr. Caligari, who peers out at the citizens of Holstenwall through black make-up accentuating the lines of his face. Hidden behind a top hat and glasses, he scowls like Ebenezer Scrooge at anyone who dares point a finger of accusation his way, and an insidious grin spreads across his face as he shovels spoonful after spoonful of slop into Cesare’s mouth. Lil Dagover’s ghostly Jane wonders the film as if she is in a trance, a chiaroscuro spirit who is dragged over the rooftops by Cesare in one of the most iconic sequences of the entire film. Hans Heinrich von Twardowski is good-natured as the jolly Alan, who is game to play along with what he believes is a sideshow farce. Friedrich Fehér rounds out the cast as Francis, the hero of our story who doesn’t appear to have the handle on reality that he believes he does. In a way, he is almost like a detective the way he hurries along looking for any clue to help solve his friend’s murder.
The most controversial aspect of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is easily the twist ending, which some may view as a bit of a cheat. There is no doubt in my mind that in 1920, this tacked on surprise left many audience members with their jaws on the floor. I am one that falls into the camp of thinking that the twist is a bit unnecessary, as it washes away the flavor of the events that preceded it. At the time the film was made, the producers believed that the original conclusion was too disturbing, so they encouraged Wiene to shoot a more accessible finale. However, despite this minor complaint, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is still a film unlike any other. There are stretches were you forget you’re watching a silent film and there are images that you could freeze-frame and hang on your living room wall. Whether you’re a fan of cinema or just a casual moviegoer, you owe it to yourself to check out this significant and surreal work of art. Make it a double feature with F.W. Murnau’s Expressionist classic Nosferatu. Your dreams may never be the same.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
When I sit down and reflect back on the horror films that have scared the daylights out of me, there is one gritty and uncompromising masterpiece that really stands out among the others. That particular film would be director Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cannibalistic nightmare The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a horrifying and skin-crawling trip into a rotting and withering Texas wasteland that is just a little too unshakably real. Made for a measly $300,000 dollars and inspired by the brutality of the evening news, the dishonesty of the US government, and real-life serial killer Ed Gein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would go on to become a massively influential slasher movie and give birth to one of horror’s most notorious boogeymen—Leatherface. While the name alone will turn off many squeamish viewers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t your typical exploitation horror film. There isn’t a massive fixation with blood and guts, but there is a burning desire on Hooper’s part to stuff the film with rusted atmosphere and stomach churning anxiety that has been baking in the smoldering Texas sun. You practically expect the film to reek of gasoline fumes, sweat, and decomposing road kill. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre emerged from one of the most unforgiving eras in the history of horror and has remained one of the cruelest genre efforts of the 1970s, right up there with such spine-chilling classics as The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Jaws, and Dawn of the Dead.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with Sally Hardesty (Played by Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Played by Paul A. Partain), Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry (Played by Allen Danzinger), and mutual friends, Kirk (Played by William Vail) and Pam (Played by Teri McMinn), venturing out into the backwoods of Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather after reports of grave robbing and vandalism in the area. After checking on their grandfather’s grave, the group decides to head over to the old abandoned Hardesty farm. Along their way, they pick up a local hitchhiker (Played by Edwin Neal), who claims to live nearby the old Hardesty farm. After cutting both himself and Franklin with a razor, the group kicks the man out of their van and leaves him out in the Texas sun. The group thinks their problems are over, but while exploring the abandoned farm, they discover another secluded home that they believe is also abandoned. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that the home isn’t abandoned at all and one by one they fall victim to a deranged group of cannibals led by the hulking chain saw–wielding Leatherface (Played by Gunnar Hansen).
Hooper kicks off The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with narrator John Larroquette reading from a text crawl that explains what we are about to see is based on true events. We then have a pitch-black screen cut with brief flashes of what appears to be a decomposing corpse. During your first viewing, you won’t be entirely sure, but you will swear that rustling and grunting sound effects that accompany the dark are the sounds of furious digging and scraping. Then a radio report kicks in with news of a local grave robber and the macabre creations that the individual has been leaving in the local cemetery. Hooper then cuts to a close-up of the face of a gooey corpse, pulling his camera back to slowly to reveal the body of the corpse has been tied to a massive headstone. If you look carefully, it almost looks like the corpse is grinning at the viewer. As the camera continues to slowly pan back, Hooper is revealing an amber wasteland and his elevated corpse is warning us that death rules over this nearly abandoned and decrepit part of the great state of Texas. It also seems to be conveying that madness will be the king for the next eighty-four minutes and you are a poor sap at its mercy. With this monument to madness on full display, the radio reporting on strange disappearances and morbid local activity in the background, and Hooper revving up his clank-roar-and-bang score, we are pinned to our seats, stomachs uneasy about what carnage is to come and what redneck monsters this dried up abandonment will spit out. The first time I saw, it nearly paralyzed me with fright.
After this massively effective opening sequence, it could have been very easy for Hooper to cater to exploitation audiences hungry for plenty of blood and guts, but he keeps a good majority of the violence off the screen and lets our imaginations fill in the nasty stuff. Instead, he continues to pump in the rotting atmosphere of a once delightful small town full of happy memories now gripped by unemployment, hopelessness, and insanity. It is the ultimate American nightmare. Every single character is suspicious or just plain spaced out under the burning sun and every home or farm is sinking away into the cracking landscape. When Hooper lets Leatherface Sawyer out of his house of horrors with his chain saw buzzing, the terror hits highs you never thought possible. He lumbers around the inside of Sawyer household while screeching like a banshee and plopping his victims on meat hooks. When he dashes through the night after scrappy victim Sally, who basically becomes our heroine, it actually feels like Hooper was creeping through the trees and filming an authentic chase between these two (Someone call the authorities!). You may have to lean forward to fully see what is going on, but in a way, the pitch black highlighted with streaks of blue keep your imagination buzzing just like Leatherface’s chain saw. This pitch-black chase reminds the viewer how removed from society these people are, that the Sawyers are the ones that live on the path that is just off the beaten path, far away from modern society.
Since the sets, atmosphere, and monster are all so good, you barely even notice some of the amateur acting that plagues the first portion of the film. The only one of the kids that really stands out is Marilyn Burns as Sally, who must have been without a voice for a month after all the screaming she does in the final twenty minutes. Once you see the horrors she is staring down (I don’t think that is animal meat on her plate), you will not blame her for all the screaming. Then we have Edwin Neal, who plays the kooky hitchhiker who used to work at the local meat packing company. He is just plain crackers as he slices his hand with a razor and then giggles over it. To make things worse, he is the brother of Leatherface, a hulking, mentally challenged killer who likes to wear masks made of human flesh. Hansen plays him with plenty of gusto and he is made all the creepier through the several costume changes he undergoes. He switches from butcher, to housewife, to formal dinner attire and one is creepier than the next. Also on board here is Jim Siedow as the old man who runs the gas station. He seems like a harmless old man at first, but it is soon revealed that he has ties to Leatherface and the hitchhiker. To make things worse, he is cooking up some seriously nasty BBQ in the back of the gas station.
Like most of the other classic horror films of the 1970s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t shy away from making a political statement. Hooper has stated that “the film you are about to see is true” gimmick at the beginning of the film was a response to the lies told by the US government during Watergate and the Vietnam War. You could also view it as a cheap exploitation trick to lure in audience members hungry for some major depravity. Hooper has also said that he was inspired to make the film after repeatedly seeing jaw-dropping violence and graphic coverage on the evening news. There is also plenty of inspiration drawn from Ed Gein, which is especially present in the Sawyer family homestead that is complete with human bones fashioned into furniture and even human skin covering the light over their dinner table. Overall, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most starkly convincing horror films I have ever seen. It is raw, in your face, and unforgettable, begging to be seen again and again to spot the tiny details thrown in by Hooper. But the true terror lies in the idea that there is nothing overly fantastic here. Sometimes, a simple backwoods cannibal wearing human skin as a mask and wielding a chain saw is one of the most terrifying things out there.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I think that most critics and horror fans would all agree that Robert Wise’s 1963 chiller The Haunting is the king of haunted house films. Adapted from the novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting is a psychological spookfest that immensely enjoys developing its characters before it slow burns into a seriously terrifying blaze of unhinged madness and supernatural bangs. Reluctantly to get flashy with its special effects, Wise keeps The Haunting down to earth with only ghostly whispers just in the other room, shadowy faces crawling across the wall, and a buckling door, all of which scare the viewer more than a ghostly specter manifesting ever would. While it certainly won’t go over big with the blood and guts crowd, Wise crafts an arty and classy character study that certainly pushed the envelop for its time. While The Haunting didn’t initially blow me away when I first saw, repeated viewings and readings on the film have deepened my appreciation of Wise’s vision. The understated style of the film was the ultimate shock for me, that Wise was able to scare us so badly while barely lifting a finger. You’ll never hear knocking the same way again.
The Haunting begins with a lengthy back-story of Hill House, a sprawling mansion that has seen its fair share of suicide, death, and horror over the years. The film then speeds ahead to present day with Dr. John Markway (Played by Richard Johnson), a paranormal investigator, searching for supernatural evidence at Hill House. He has invited three other guests, Hill House inheritor Luke Sanderson (Played by Russ Tamblyn), psychic Theodora (Played by Claire Bloom), and supernaturally sensitive Eleanor Lance (Played by Julie Harris), to join him in his search. As the group settles in, they are given the history of Hill House and taken on a tour of the massive structure. While most of the occurrences are debunked instantly by Dr. Markway, the night unleashes horrors beyond the group’s imagination. To make things worse, Eleanor begins to loose her grip on reality and becomes convinced the house wants her to stay. Things go from bad to worse when Grace Markway (Played by Lois Maxwell) shows up to make sure her husband isn’t having an affair.
Right from the get go, Wise makes sure we know that Hill House is the star of this show. The house is certainly a character here as Eleanor constantly complains that the house is watching her and that it is demanding that she stay there forever. While it seems to have some ghostly spirits wandering its halls, the house itself appears to spring to life as doors swing shut, horrific banging can be heard echoing through the halls, and faces appear in the walls. We don’t need the characters to tell us that the house is evil, all we have to do is take a look around. The real beauty of The Haunting comes in the way it handles its supernatural inhabitants. There is no elaborate monster waiting to leap out of a darkened closet or damp basement and there is no doorway to Hell waiting under the stairs. It just seems like it is a home stuffed with bad energy and that is creepy enough for me. A good majority of the time, I wondered if the home was truly haunted or if one of the other guests had a sick sense of humor and was just out to give Eleanor a heart attack. For a while, Wise allows us to believe that I must say it adds a bit of comfort before he really allows his spirits to have their hair-raising fun.
When Hill House isn’t busy stealing the show, Wise keeps his camera aimed at the splendid Harris and Johnson. Harris is unforgettable as the emotionally fragile Eleanor, who falls apart at every little bump or whisper. She is incredibly naïve and repressed as she longs for the affection of Dr. Markway. Johnson never ceases to amaze as quickly tries to explain away all the activity that is taking place around Eleanor. He probes her inner demons and really digs deep into why she seems so emotionally unstable. Bloom holds her own as the lesbian psychic Theodora, who pines after the worrywart Eleanor. Wait for the scene in which a loud banging noise has Eleanor jumping into bed with Theodora. You’ll see why it raised a few eyebrows at the time of its release. Tamblyn is mostly a background player, a hard-drinking playboy who seems more interested in turning Hill House into his own private Playboy mansion rather than really getting to the bottom of anything substantial. When his fear claws its way to the surface at the end, he sure does make us feel it. The only one who I can honestly say is underused is Maxwell as John’s suspicious wife, Grace. Her character seems like it is only there to create more pandemonium but it sure is effective pandemonium. I just would have liked to see more of her.
I can’t praise The Haunting enough for showing us just how effective the tool of atmosphere can really be. Atmosphere is everything in a horror film and The Haunting has plenty to go around, that I can assure you. There is no doubt that the lengthy character development at the beginning is exhaustive but it pays off when the tragic climax freezes our blood. Wise adds another supernatural layer by the way he uses his camera throughout the course of the film. At one point, the camera zooms from the highest point of Hill House down to the face of Eleanor. Wise also twists and turns his camera while shooting the interior of the house, almost distorting it in small ways and making it seem otherworldly. Released in 1963, there is no doubt that the vague sexual repression and explicit lesbianism struck a chord with viewers. Intelligent and eloquent, The Haunting rightfully earns its spot among the horror elite. It dares to show us that very little can actually be quite a bit, something that more horror directors should pay attention to. Overall, The Haunting is one of the scariest, most unsettling films of the 1960s, one that rewards with multiple viewings and continues to terrify to this very day.
The Haunting is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
You have to love William Castle. Even if he produced B-movie schlock, the man knew how to sell a cheese filled idea. Luring audience members in through gimmicks (buzzers on the theater seats during 1959’s The Tingler, a $1,000 life insurance policy should someone die of fright in 1958’s Macabre), Castle giddily scared the pants off people through marketing alone. Despite the flashy promotion, Castle did direct a number of fairly substantial horror films that have stood the test of time and earned a respectable cult following. One of those films happens to be 1959 haunted mansion film House on Haunted Hill, the Vincent Price funhouse that features several moments that will have you dashing off for a change of underwear. Flawed but certainly a whole bunch of fun, House on Haunted Hill is nothing but an excuse for five strangers to walk into a supposedly haunted house and simply explore the spooks it has to offer. When it sticks to this premise, the film is a horror gem but when it decides to tack on its messy final twenty minutes, things don’t turn out so well. Still, you can’t argue with that skeleton backing a shrieking woman into a vat of acid. That, my friends, is why we see horror films.
House on Haunted Hill introduces us to eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Played by Vincent Price) and his wife, Annabelle Loren (Played by Carol Ohmart), who rents out an old mansion that is said to be haunted and then invites five strangers to join him for a night of terror. The guests include Lance Schroeder (Played by Richard Long), Nora Manning (Played by Carolyn Craig), Dr. David Trent (Played by Alan Marshal), Watson Pritchard (Played by Elisha Cook Jr.), and Ruth Bridgers (Played by Julie Mitchum), all who appear to have never met Fredrick and Annabelle before. The group is told that whoever can last the night in the home will receive a check for $10,000. The group is given the history of the house, which includes gruesome murder and mutilation, and then they are taken on a tour. As some of the guests break off from the group, the ghosts begin to reveal themselves and certain guests hint that they may not be random strangers at all.
Like a tour through a Halloween haunted house, Castle hurls one pop-up scare at us after another. Blood drips down from the ceiling, a chandelier comes crashing down on the guests, ghosts float outside of windows, skeletons walk, severed heads wait in trunks, and a witchy ghoul emerges from the dungeon. It’s in this stretch that House on Haunted Hill isn’t exactly heavy with plot but dares to have a cheeky and spooky good time as the characters are scared half to death. Heavy doses of camp are added through the otherworldly score and Vincent Price as he richly sells the ghostly encounters. There are several moments where Castle has Price almost directly address us about the terror playing out in the twisting hallways and cobwebbed dungeons where vats of acid boil and bubble in anticipation for the victim that tumbles in. The home feels just cramped enough to gives us a claustrophobic chill yet big enough to assure us that terror could easily be hiding somewhere and just waiting for the right moment to leap out and scream “BOO” right in our face. It’s loaded with atmosphere on the inside and the outside certainly makes an imposing statement is it stands proudly in the dark.
Much of the success of House and Haunted Hill lies on the shoulders of Price, who brings his usual macabre purrs to the spook show. Only Price was morbid enough to play a character that has stuck around with Annabelle, his fourth wife who has tried to poison him. He takes great pleasure in the horror around him, chewing through a smile as he passes out guns tucked into little wooden coffins as party favors. You’re a mean one, Mr. Price. Ohmart’s Annabelle is just as devious, the lady who came up with this eerie party idea. She brings her own devilish charm to the soirée and she takes terror to a whole new level as a walking skeleton stalks her through that old basement. Cook is great as the scared stiff Pritchard, the alcoholic owner of the home who fully believes that spirits wander the halls. Craig is one hell of a scream queen as Nora, who is consistently tormented by the ghosts or perhaps even one of the other party guests. Her run in with a ghoul is cellar has got to rank as one of the most shocking scenes in a horror film.
While the ending may subtract some of the supernatural creeps that flow freely throughout it, House on Haunted Hill still is a creaky winner in the haunted house subgenre. The scenes where the characters directly speak to the audience are immensely silly and certainly haven’t aged well at all. It actually causes the film to loose some momentum but it is blatantly Castle. At the time of the film’s release, Castle asked theaters to install an elaborate pulley system that would send a skeleton gliding over the heads of the audience members. I still think it would be very cool if theaters showed the film and included that Castle gimmick. It would certainly make for a nifty piece of nostalgia. Overall, House on Haunted Hill has zero depth but it does develop its characters quite nicely and it delivers scares at just the right time. It has plenty of camp throughout, which makes it perfectly safe for the kiddies to enjoy on Halloween night after trick r’ treating. In the end, the film belongs to Price and the disturbing reveal of his character in the final seconds of the film. For those who wish to get into Castle and really have some fun with his work, House on Haunted Hill is a great starting point. Be warned, this one may scare the pants right off of you.
House on Haunted Hill is available on DVD.
Hey boys and ghouls,
With only a few more days to go in Anti-Film School’s Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular, I am shifting things from horror remakes to good old fashioned haunted house movies. This is, after all, the time of the year when the spirits make themselves known and roam free. So readers, let us celebrate the things that go bump in the night. Just make sure you leave a night light on…
-Theater Management (Steve)