Time for Richard Freeman again. It almost seems silly introducing Richard to you all once again when he makes an appearance as guest blogger several times a week. However, our viewing audience/ readers (whatever you like to call yourselves) is growing so fast that it is certain that some of you missed the last time I introduced him.
Fear is he most basic, primal emotion known to man. It was the emotion that helped us survive on the plains of East Africa 3 million years ago. It can come as no surprise then that horror is one of the post popular genres in film.
Some of the earliest films are of a fantastical horrific nature. Le Manoir du diable directed by film pioneer Georges Mėliės in 1896 is generally thought of as the first horror film. The two-minute short features a giant bat, the devil and skeletons.
The following year he released La Caverne maudite wherein a young woman is surrounded by ghosts of the dead in an underground cavern.
Surprisingly the Japanese were early innovators in horror. The first two films made in Japan Bake Jizo (Jizo the Ghost) and Shinin no Sosei, (Resurrection of a Corpse), both filmed in 1898, were horror films.
Most of these early films were really showcases for trying out new special effects and had little plot. But as time went horror films became longer and more sophisticated.
Robert Wiene’s 1920 offering The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a complex story of madness, dreams, sleepwalking and murder. 89 years on it is still an impressive and atmospheric piece of cinema.
In the same year John S. Robertson directed the first film version of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Interestingly the lead actor John Barrymore achieved the change from Jekyll to Hyde with facial expression rather than make-up.
Two years later F. W. Murnau directed Nosferatu, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker’s widow would not allow them to use the book's name, hence the title. Ironically Count Orlock, ably played by Max Shreck, is still the closest thing cinema has produced to Stoker’s actual description of Dracula. Nosferatu remains the best vampire movie to date.
The unquestioned king of the silent horror was Lon Chaney, ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. His defining role was as Erik in Rupert Julian’s 1925 version of Phantom of The Opera. Chaney, always willing to suffer for his art, wore a brace of animal teeth to add to the Phantom’s cadaverous look. Like so many of the silent movies this remains he best screen treatment of the story. Chaney’s phantom has a demented, elemental power but a deep pathos. In the most memorable scene he tells the heroine Christine Daae that his earliest memory is that of his mother putting a mask on him in his cradle because she could not bear to look at him.
The advent of the talky gave rise to the Universal Monster Movies that many still deem the best of their kind but I find generally over-rated. Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula is a good case in point. Though charismatic, and a fine actor, Bela Lugosi bore scant resemblance to Stokers description of the count. In fact Lugosi’s image owes more to the silent screen lover Rudolph Valentino. This film also saw the beginning of the idea of a vampire as a sexual predator, something to be desired rather than feared. In the actual legends from Eastern Europe vampires are gangrenous, vile, foul-smelling and disease-spreading; a thousand miles from their film counterparts.
Far more satisfying was Brownings’s 1932 film Freaks in which a lovely trapeze artiste marries the leader of a group of deformed circus entertainers for his money. When his friends discover her plan, they deal out their own justice. Browning used real deformed people in the film rather than actors in make-up.
Just as Lugosi’s slick haired, black-cloaked Dracula became fixed in the public’s perception of the character so did Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the monster in James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein, which is now synonymous with the character. The flat-headed, clunky-booted monster with electrodes in his neck springs to mind whenever he name of his creator is mentioned. In fact there is little description of the nameless monster in Mary Shelley’s novel, aside from his pearly white teeth and fine black hair being in contrast to his sickly yellow skin.
The differences don’t end here. In the book Frankenstein is not a Doctor or a Baron but a medical student. He carries out his experiments in his student digs, not in a creepy old castle and there are none of the angry, torch-bearing villagers seen in just about every Frankenstein film to date.
Universal trotted out several other monsters including Lon Chaney Jr as The Wolfman in 1941. Looking more like a Yorkshire terrier than a wolf and set in a Scotland portrayed a hundred years behind its actual date, this movie has not aged well.
In the following year Universal brought these three characters back again and again in increasingly poor films. The only new character of note was the ‘Gillman’ an amphibious humanoid in the 1954 movie ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’. The costume was so scary it is alleged that some make up artists refused to be left alone with it. The Gillman was Universal’s only truly original monster and by far its best.
Overseas far more interesting things were occurring than in Hollywood. Toho studio’s Gojira (Godzilla) surfaced in 1954. Directed and written by Ishirô Honda the film took the ancient dragon legends of Japan and gave them a post Hiroshima twist. Nuclear explosions awaken a legendary giant reptile that then devastates Tokyo. The original film is a dark and brooding piece with the memories of atomic destruction still raw in the minds of the Japanese. The film was so successful that it kick-started a franchise that is still running today.
In England Hammer Studios embarked upon a series of films that were a breath of fresh air after the stuffy and un-scary Universal efforts. Filmed on a shoestring budget Hammer Horror were the first films to really use gore. Christopher Lee in Terence Fisher’s 1958 Dracula is a red-eyed, red-fanged predator in a way Lugosi never was. Hammer did not balk at showing the Count sink his teeth into a victim or indeed to show him impaled in a bloody manner upon a stake. In The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Terrance Fisher) we see a deliberate break from the flat-headed monster of Karloff to a more realistic thing looking like it was indeed made from parts of dismembered corpses. Hammer showed Frankenstein actually grave-robbing and sewing the bits together. The Hammer version of The Mummy (1959, Terrence Fisher) is the best to date with Christopher Lee lurching menacingly through the swamps, swathed in bandages.
Back in the U.S. the 1950s was the age of the B-movie; the legendary monsters of the 30s and 40s largely being replaced by the twin bugbears of atomic weapons and ‘reds under the bed’. Countless films involved alien invaders that were thinly veiled metaphors for communism. Some were done quiet thoughtfully such as Jack Arnolds’s 1953 film It Came From Out of Space where the grotesque aliens are portrayed as sympathetic and peaceful. The message was ‘different is not necessarily bad’. But in the age of the McCarthy witch hunts most aliens were shown as a threat.
In films like Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955) were two of the best examples of monsters unleashed by atomic energy. Hordes of giant arthropods threatened the U.S.A. during the 1950s.
Over in Japan a whole new breed of monster movies began in the late fifties and continues to the present day. Ask the man in the street to name ten Japanese things and the odds are that Godzilla (or Gojira to give him his Japanese name) will be amongst them. For many people their first exposure to Japan is through the wildly entreating genre of giant monster movies, wherein antediluvian or extraterrestrial beasts smash through Tokyo. Godzilla, Rodan, Gamara and their colleagues even have a collective name in Japan. Known as Kaiju they have become an institution.
The 1960s and 70s saw a boom in the imagination of filmmakers. The pendulum swung away from traditional monsters to man-made threats and creatures from beyond or ken. One of the most original was Eugeino Martin’s 1973 offering Horror Express. Set on the Trans-Siberian railway it involved an alien energy that inhabits a 3 million year old apeman deforested from a block of ice. The monster breaks loose on the train and devours the minds of its victims by psychically sucking their brains out!
Island of Terror (Terrence Fisher 1966) involves a group of slug-like creatures called ‘silicates’ who were genetically engineered to suck out cancer cells in bone marrow cancer sufferers. Braking free of their island laboratory they multiply and suck the bones from their human victims like calcium vampires.
In a more traditional vein Vincent Price starred in some wonderfully OTT parts in the 70s.
In Theatre of Blood (1973, Douglas Hickox) he plays Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearian actor spurned by critics. Faking his own death he returns later to kill the critics in murders copied from the Bard’s own plays. These include a man force fed his own poodles. They don’t make them like that any more.
In The Abominable Dr Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971) and its sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again (Robert Fuest 1972) he plays the monstrously deformed and totally insane Dr Anton Phibes, a mad organist who kills the doctors who failed to save his wife’s life, in ways based on biblical plagues.
As special effects became better in the 80s and 90s you would have expected horror films to have broadened their spectrum, but in fact this was not the case. The same dull old chestnuts such as vampires and werewolves were rolled out again and again. The advent of the home video started an influx of new films most of them made for video release and most of poor quality. Slasher films where a human psychopath takes the place of the monster were popular as well. Most of this fall into such a grey mush of blandness that the plot of one is hard to tell apart from the plot of another.
A few films stand out as truly original. Written and directed by Larry Cohen in 1982 Q The Winged Serpent involves a small-time crook who stumbles on a cult that worship the ancient Aztec dragon god Quetzecoatl, and have literally prayed the god back into existence. The monster builds a nest on top of the Chrysler Building and swoops down to devour high-rise window cleaners and people swimming in penthouse pools. In a scene far better than the climax of King Kong the NYPD battle the monster atop the skyscraper where it has its lair.
Lair of the White Worm (Ken Russell, 1988) is based on the little known Bram Stoker novel of the same name. It involved the reincarnation of the Roman High Priestess of a snake worship cult who sacrifices victims to an immortal serpent god who has its lair in some caves in Derbyshire.
What does the future hold for the monster flick? On the cards are remakes of some of the Universal monster films and some of he 1950s B-movies. These include new versions of The Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! There have been persistent rumours that the long-defunct Hammer Studios are being resurrected. None of these have borne fruit as yet but we can but hope. In a genre now over-run by repetitive plots and un-scary monsters such as pretty-boy vampires, a great company like Hammer could, if you will excuse the pun, make a killing!