Sunday, May 18, 2008
A vote for older, unique chillers
This column by Doug Gibson was originally published in the Aug. 1, 2007 Standard-Examiner. It includes a plug for Ed Wood's 1955 wonderfully creaky mad scientist seeks revenge shocker, "Bride of the Monster," starring Bela Lugosi, in his final substantive role. It also starred Tor Johnson, a Wood regular. Ed co-wrote, produced and directed "Bride." It was sneaked, incredibly, with Deborah Kerr's "The End of the Affair!" (At left, Tor Johnson menaces Loretta King in "Bride.")
Dump the 'torture porn' and enjoy an old 'chiller'
by Doug Gibson
Scary cinema is fad-based. We had the creature-features of 60 and 70 years ago ("Frankenstein," "Dracula," "The Wolf Man"), then the atomic, science fiction thrillers ("The Thing," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"). Alfred Hitchcock was a genre himself in the 1960s and early '70s with "Psycho," "The Birds" and "Frenzy."
Gore films were the fad as I grew up. It started with George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," gained momentum with Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and sort of peaked with Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," a clever satire of consumerism.
When I was a teen, John Carpenter's very scary, and slyly amusing, "Halloween" kicked off the "slasher film" fad. "Nightmare on Elm Street" kept that going, and the dreadful "Friday the 13th" started a string of even worse summer camp slasher movies — anyone remember "Sleepaway Camp" or "The Dorm that Dripped Blood?" Unfortunately, I do.
I stopped watching new horror films in the early 1990s. The movies stopped being original to me, although — hate to say this, maybe I just got tired of blood and guts. Today, if I want to see a scary movie, I choose a spooky ghost story, such as "The Others" or "The Sixth Sense" or "Haunted," a low-budget 1995 chiller.
Regarding today's fad — torture porn, such as "Saw" and "Hostel": Not only do I avoid that junk, I'm already planning strategies so my children will spurn it. In my 40s now, I find myself enjoying old, forgotten films, tiny-budget cheapies from the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. I saw these titles in the 1970s' TV Guide, listed after midnight on Los Angeles' several independent TV stations.
A few I got to watch; most I missed. But I never forgot them: "The Ape Man," "Bowery at Midnight," "Scared to Death," "Murder By Television," "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Carnival of Souls," "The Man with Nine Lives," "King of the Zombies." The studios that made these films — Republic, Monogram, Producers Releasing Corporation, Golden Gate Pictures, Lasky-Monka — they're long gone.
The films have ceased their ubiquitous presence on late-night TV, except rare dates with Turner Classic Movies and UEN's local Sci-Fi Friday movies. But you can buy them all on DVD now — some for a buck.
Still, it's sort of sad. As I explain to my skeptical wife, there is a sense of community watching one of these old movies on TV. We're an audience — unseen and far apart — but nevertheless, fans sharing a great film. You don't get that feeling when you watch a film on disc or tape.
For what it's worth, a few recommendations — by decade — of these old chillers. Are they scary? Most, frankly, no. But they are original, with ambitious plots that go as far as a small budget allows.
The 1930s "White Zombie" — This 1932 film stars Bela Lugosi as "Murder Legendre," an evil sorcerer who helps a rich, selfish young man lure a young couple to an island. The selfish man loves the woman, but his plan to win her backfires when the woman is turned into a zombie by Legendre. The film's chills still hold up, particularly the scene of zombies toiling in a sugar mill and the atmospheric castle against a cliff.
The 1940s "Strangler of the Swamp" — Made in 1948, this atmospheric thriller involves a man, hanged for a murder he didn't commit, who returns as a ghost and assumes the role of ferryman at the swamp. Instead of ferrying passengers, he strangles locals in revenge. Finally, a young woman (Rosemary LaPlanche) prepares to offer herself as a sacrifice to get the ghost to leave. The strangler (Charles Middleton) was "Emperor Ming" in the old "Flash Gordon" serials.
The 1950s "Bride of the Monster" — This 1955 film is probably the best Ed Wood directed. Sure, that's not saying much, but an emaciated, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi is still good as embittered, exiled mad scientist Eric Vornoff, who "vill perfect ... a race of atomic supermen vich vill conquer the vorld!" Wood staple Tor Johnson, a 400-pound wrestler, is also in the movie. The low budget includes a photo enlarger as an atomic energizer and a rubber octopus as the monster of the marsh.
The 1960s "Spider Baby: Or the Maddest Story Ever Told" — This comedy/horror is creepy. It stars a very old Lon Chaney Jr. as the caretaker for an insane family. They suffer from a syndrome that causes them to degenerate into children, then babies, then prehuman savages. Relatives come to the house to institutionalize the family. It proves to be a long, horrific night. "Spider Baby" was filmed in 1964 but not released until 1968. Chaney Jr., who could barely talk due to his advanced alcoholism, actually sings the title song.
Gibson is the Standard-Examiner's assistant editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.