Thursday, November 2, 2017

Critic's Crypt: On a Century of Horror Cinema, Part I

I’m never one to shirk my responsibilities as a festive moviegoer. Certain times of year call for certain cinematic experiences, and when crisp, melancholy October rolls around I like to ring in the season by cloaking myself in the darkness of the horror genre. There’s no better environment in which to contemplate mortality than amongst the autumn leaves, as they die their violently colourful deaths.

In October of the Year of Our Lord 2017 I watched no fewer than twenty-one horror movies. They spanned a myriad of subgenres across nearly a century of cinema, from the supernatural to the psychological to the downright silly. There’s no way to cover them all in a single Critic’s Crypt, so I’ve broken them down by decade and attempted to chart a course through the murky, tempest-tossed waters of horror history. Follow me, brave spookophile, into these briny and limitless depths!

– Justin Cummings

The Black Cat (1934)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Black Cat (1934).

The thirties were the true Golden Age for horror cinema, a landmark decade whose impact need not be reinforced here by such a neophyte as me. Film historians will tell you that the emergence of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, director James Whale, and make-up artist Jack Pierce were foundational in not just cinematic history but cultural history as well; all I can tell you is that the movies that Universal Studios was making at this time are a hell of a lot more entertaining than you might expect. Our modern sensibilities lean towards the fast-paced, the intense, and the violent, and we’re inclined to believe that these old black-and-white talkies can’t possibly measure up in terms of entertainment value. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me that black and white films are too “boring” to watch. I’m here to tell you: to these modern eyes, Bride of Frankenstein and The Black Cat aren’t just entertaining; they are among the most fun, emotive, and genuinely chilling films I’ve ever seen. The filmmaking on display in Bride of Frankenstein, including the climactic collapse of the titular doctor’s stone tower laboratory, is still impressive today – I found myself agape at the creativity and the verisimilitude of John P. Fulton’s special effects, which include still-common techniques like rotoscoping, matte backgrounds, miniatures, and some incredibly convincing prosthetics work. (It also features my favourite film depiction of a mad scientist – sorry, Doc Brown – in Ernest Thesiger’s Doctor Pretorius, whose gleeful, unapologetically evil turn is an absolute delight to behold.)

The Black Cat is notable not just for its amazingly striking sets and its pervasive atmosphere of dread, but for pairing Karloff with his horror rival Lugosi, both giving sharp, understated performances that were doubtlessly fueled by the real-life tensions that defined their careers. Freed from the restraints of their more monstrous roles, Karloff and Lugosi are able to explore darker and more nuanced interpersonal conflicts as a pair of feuding intellectuals who play games with the lives of others. The Black Cat certainly wasn’t the first film to depict Satanic rituals (the 1922 silent classic Häxan probably holds that honour) but with the addition of Karloff’s angular, hatchet-faced menace and Lugosi’s sly, enigmatic persuasion, the “Rites of Lucifer” that take place at the film’s climax are among the most evocative I’ve ever seen on screen. I found both films to be tremendously stimulating, and in many ways more palatable than the horror fare that would come in their wake – especially because, unlike many modern films, they’re pleasantly bite-sized at under 80 minutes each.


Horror of Dracula (1958)
The Tingler (1959)

Vincent Price, Darryl Hickman, and Pamela Lincoln in The Tingler (1959).

If the 1930s were horror’s Golden Age, then the 1950s and 60s were its Silver Age, a natural evolution of the form that introduced new ideas alongside refinements of the old ones. As horror stories help a culture express its deepest and most repressed anxieties, so did the Hammer horror films help to free the late 50s from their outwardly clean-cut pretensions, injecting the outdated classics with new shots of vitality and violence. Horror of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee as the famous Count and Peter Cushing as his relentless adversary, Van Helsing, was the first Hammer film to revamp (pun intended) one of the Universal classics, and from the opening title frames – in which the Count’s coffin, stamped with his name, is dirtied by a spatter of bright blood – it’s clear that you’ve entered a new age in horror cinema. This is reinforced by the departures that the story takes from its source material, making a hard left turn from Bram Stoker’s slow-burning tale of the hapless Jonathan Harker by showing, in its first ten minutes, that this version of Harker (John Van Eyssen) is not just already aware that Dracula is a vampire when he first meets him, but is actually a vampire hunter, and has come to eliminate the Count. (Guess how well that goes.) The rest of the film is a grim, often terrifying race to stop Dracula from spreading his plague-like curse among Harker’s relatives, including his fiancée Lucy (a bright-eyed Carol Marsh), and his brother and sister-in-law Arthur (Michael Gough) and Mina (Melissa Stribling). The cast all perform wonderfully, but -- surprise -- Cushing and Lee are the real stars. As Van Helsing, Cushing projects calm confidence and supreme expertise, never faltering in the face of the evil he hunts; and as Dracula, Lee is smoldering, aristocratic, and feral, playing off his own natural charisma to disguise the blood-hungry fiend beneath. It’s a sexy, lurid, sometimes even shocking film, whose gaudy Technicolor palette, full of crimson blood, deep black shadow, and pale exposed flesh, is itself like a refutation of the relatively straight-laced standards of the time.

So too was William Castle’s The Tingler, filmed in black and white but packaged with Castle’s in-house gimmickry (called “PERCEPTO!”) that was an ingenious attempt at cinematic innovation. For Castle, 3D wasn’t enough: he needed the threat to actually be there in the theatre with you, and so his tale of Dr Warren Chapin (Vincent Price), who discovers a disgusting parasite that lives on the human spine and feeds off fear, was accompanied by vibrating theatre seats, audience plants who would scream and “faint,” and direct appeals to the audience within the film itself – often inviting them to scream as loudly and lustily as they could. Today the camp appeal of this film, especially given the lack of the PERCEPTO! experience, exists mostly in its cheesy (yet still oddly unnerving) special effects, including the deeply unconvincing rubber bug that represents the titular parasite and some LSD-inspired nightmare sequences (like one that shows, in the midst of a black-and-white film, a bathtub full of bright red blood – achieved by physically painting both the set and the actress in greyscale). My favourite part is the script, whose snarky wit gives horror icon Price lots to chew on in his barbed repartee with his deceitful wife (Patricia Cutts), as when she snaps, ,“There’s a word for people like you,” and he lazily retorts “There’s several for you,” or when he compares her to one of his feline test subjects by asking, “Have you two met? In the same alley, perhaps?” Castle, in his own journey as a maestro of schlock, managed with The Tingler to inject the horror cinema experience with a jolt of bizarre camp insanity that followed Horror of Dracula in its movement away from earlier, more puritanical horror, into much stranger and uncharted territory.


The Wicker Man (1973)
Deep Red (1975)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Halloween (1978)
Phantasm (1979)

Michael Baldwin, with Angus Scrimm, in Phantasm (1979).

By the 1970s, horror had officially started to get weird. Subgenres were popping up left and right like ghouls from the grave, and in making my selections from that decade I sampled such diverse fare as folk horror, giallo, zombie horror, slasher horror, and fantasy horror. It was during this time that scary cinema truly pushed its own boundaries, testing the limits of both its creators and its audiences in its depiction of terrors never before seen on screen. This exploratory period resulted in some of the best horror ever made . . . and some of the strangest. Few horror films are as unapologetically of their own time as The Wicker Man, Deep Red, and Dawn of the Dead, each an examination of the particular anxieties that were new to the evolving world of the late 20th century. The Wicker Man, in its tale of a priggish and devout constable (Edward Woodward) who discovers the dark pagan underbelly of an isolated Scottish island, drove a cruelly incisive wedge between the proper social norms of UK society and the primal Druidic history upon which it was built, creating real tension from the push-and-pull of the joyful, unabashedly carnal islanders and the hidden malevolence of their practices.

Deep Red, as a continuation of Dario Argento’s work in defining a very specific subgenre of Italian slasher cinema, preys upon the traditional openness of European culture, where a generous, inviting nature or even simply a fondness for children could be exploited to murderous ends by a damaged, disturbed individual. Dawn of the Dead is famous for the comparison it draws between rising American capitalist culture and the zombie apocalypse, suggesting that the mindless consumerism people exhibit in life is no different from the shambling hunger of the undead. All these films are chilling thanks to their thoughtful execution, but also thanks to their pointed commentary, which was a relatively new development in horror cinema at the time (earlier films having focused more on pure spectacle and craft).

But even when it wasn’t aiming for social criticism, 70s horror still pushed the envelope in terms of technique and content, leading to films like Halloween and Phantasm. Carpenter’s slasher classic introduced not only an iconic villain in Michael Myers (ominously credited in this film only as “The Shape”), but an entirely new language for the emerging slasher genre, whose genesis point could arguably be traced back to Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, and probably even earlier than that. Elements that Carpenter introduces so confidently here – the silent masked assailant, the sex-driven teen victims, the professorial expert on the threat, the “Final Girl” – would become so thoroughly normalized that within the next five years, they were already considered clichés. That speaks to a level of quality in simple filmmaking execution that would remain pretty much unmatched throughout the decades to come – especially by films like Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, which achieved neither the technical excellence nor the genuine fright of Halloween, but which nonetheless represented a fantastical, dreamlike take on supernatural horror that was quite unique. Its bizarre nightmare visions, centered around a “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm) whose diminutive cloaked minions and floating silver orbs spell doom for anyone who saw them, explore the unspoken childhood id of its hero, Mike (Michael Baldwin), resembling nothing so much as the scribbled Trapper Keeper doodles of a schoolboy whose mind is full of Fangoria magazine articles and late-night games of Dungeons and Dragons. It was in more fantasy-driven expansions on the genre like this that led the horror of the 70s into the Reagan era and beyond, when exploration gave way to excess.

Tune in next Tuesday for Part II of this special Critic’s Crypt retrospective, where I delve into the horror and hilarity of the 1980s... and beyond.  – jc

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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