Saturday, October 26, 2002


As much as I love John Carpenter's original HALLOWEEN, that movie was the death knell for my interest in horror films. After that, the average horror movie basically became an exercise in killing off as many people as possible in increasingly original and outrageous ways. That got old real fast and by the mid-80's, I had quit following the genre. But I still love to watch the older films that relied on atmosphere and understatement, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer. What follows is a list of some of my favorites from the 30's and 40's; I'll do the 60's and 70's later.

DRACULA (1931)--Yes, for most of its running time, this is a stagy, stodgy, awkwardly acted film, and not all that scary. But Lugosi's embodiment of the character of Count Dracula remains indelible. The first 15 minutes or so still work quite well, largely due to great sets, fluid camerawork, lack of music, and Lugosi's eyes. I think this was the first horror movie I ever saw, when I was 7 or 8, and it's still one I revisit at least once a year.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)--Funny, campy, moving, and great looking. Although the original has its moments, this one is better made and better acted, and gives Ernest Thesiger the role of his lifetime. It's amazing to me how recognizable the Bride's face has become in popular culture, considering she only appears on screen for a few minutes.

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)--One of the best looking and most atmospheric horror movies of all time, reviewed below. Avoid the older public domain tapes and stick with the restored tape and DVD.

THE BLACK CAT (1934)--Despite the title, this has nothing to do with Poe or cats (although there is a black cat getting underfoot occasionally). Karloff and Lugosi square off against each other in a fabulous art deco mansion, with a convoluted plot about war crimes, lust, revenge, and Satanism.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)--Satanism would seem to be colorful material for horror movies, but there have been few memorable films made about it. This one is memorable, even though the Satanists themselves are deliberately bland and resolutely not colorful. It's an effective mood piece about a woman searching for her sister, who has vanished and who may be involved in a devil cult. I don't recall a single "scary" scene here, but the atmosphere of dread hangs heavy throughout.

THE MUMMY (1932) and its 40's sequels--The first Mummy movie, like DRACULA, works best in its first section; the opening remains a classic in letting the unseen scare us more than anything visible could. The acting and dialogue are better here than in DRACULA, and the pace is kept up nicely. As with Elsa Lanchester's BRIDE, we don't really see much of Karloff in his Mummy costume, but he is just as effective with his ancient skin and intense gaze. The sequels are B-movies with shabby sets and silly plots, but they all have their creepy moments.

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933) and NIGHT MONSTER (1942)--My favorite examples of the "old dark house" genre. I saw BLUE ROOM on Halloween night in the mid-60's and haven't seen it since, but it has stuck in my memory as a good, compact thriller about people accepting a dare to spend a night in a haunted room. NIGHT MONSTER involves a series of murders in a house where a crippled man is being cared for by a group of doctors.

CAT PEOPLE (1942)--The best Val Lewton film, notable for its use of the power of suggestion rather than explicit violence or gore. A woman falls in love, but falls victim to the idea that she turns into a panther when strong emotions like lust or jealousy overtake her. It took me years to figure out that it's really about female "frigidity."

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)--The end of the Universal horror cycle, and it works surprisingly well because a nice balance is acheived between the humor and the horror. I loved A&C when I was a kid, and I don't have much tolerance for them now, but this one still holds up, plus it's by far the best of the movies that incorporate the Big Three Universal Monsters (Frankenstein monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man).

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