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01 May, 2010

The Essential Films of Horror’s First Century

[Ed. Note: Originally written in 2004; Updated beginning December 2009]

Of the tens of thousands of Horror Films that have been produced since Thomas Edison’s studio first cranked out a crude version of Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein in 1910, most have disappeared, quite deservedly, into the mists of obscurity. Of those that have avoided that fate, the vast majority are, while entertaining and enjoyable to widely varying degrees, not really of any great importance in a historical sense.

However, there are movies that are so important to the genre, because of their quality or historical significance, that they belong in any serious Horror fans video library. Some movies, such as Edison’s version of FRANKENSTEIN (1910), Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922), or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), are the pioneers of the genre, both venturing forth into uncharted territory and marking the trail for those who would follow.

Others, such as Universal’s twin classics DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN (both 1931), or George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), changed the face of Horror for their time, setting the bar high for their competition, as well as inspiring hordes of imitators.

Still others redefined Horror, altering it forever from what it had been, into something new and ever more terrifying. Perhaps the most notable of these, Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), moved the monsters from outer space, or 19th Century Transylvania, into the house next door, and gave them your neighbor’s face.

Whatever reason for a film’s inclusion on this list, these are the films that must be in your collection if you consider yourself a serious devotee of Horror. At the very least, you should have seen them. That’s why some films, such as LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), don’t appear on it, though they would probably deserve to. Some films have simply failed to survive the years, and are, sadly, lost to us.

Those classics that do survive, however, deserve to be watched, and enjoyed. Watch them in the context of their times; don’t try to compare 1941’s THE WOLF-MAN to 1981’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON or 2002’s DOG SOLDIERS; or even 2010’s THE WOLFMAN. Each is a uniquely superior werewolf movie, but you cannot compare them to one another. They are, like all artistic endeavors, the products of their times. The medium changes and evolves, as does the public’s tastes and values. You must look at a film with an understanding of the forces, strictures, and mores of the time in which it was created. The merest hint, the vaguest suggestion, of necrophilia in Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 classic THE BLACK CAT was enough to shock and scandalize audiences of the period; audiences of today, in contrast, would in all probability miss the subtle references entirely. Only by realizing just how daring that film was can you appreciate the incredible decadence of it.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit it: This list is my opinion of the most Essential Horror Films of all time. I’m certain that some readers will disagree with me. If so, great! Please do. But if you do, then please list your choices and the reasons for them. There’s never any harm in provoking a good, healthy debate; and I’m not shy in saying that, while I have tried to be as objective as possible, opinions, unlike facts, are not objective things.

Also, some readers may be surprised at my failure to include films such as the LORD OF THE RINGS or HARRY POTTER films. This is not a slight to those great franchises, which I love. But this is a list that focuses on the Horror and horror-themed Sci-Fi spectrum of the Cinema Fantastica. While I enthusiastically recommend both franchises to my readers, they do not belong on this list.

And long-time readers of the Crypt might be amazed at the ‘tilt’ the list exhibits towards modern Horror Films. Of the two hundred films on this list, a third of them are from the last fourteen years. It’s not that there are better films being made these days—far from it. But there is a wider variety of Horror available now, a variety that necessitates a broader cross-section for representative purposes. The Unimonster’s heart, and his loyalties, might lie with the classics, but this list is supposed to represent a cross-section of the genre.

With that caveat to the readership, on to the movies!

The Early Years (1910-1930): The early years of the 20th Century witnessed, if not the birth, then certainly the formative years, of a new medium: Cinema. Experimental in many ways, artists were drawn to filmmaking by the medium’s ability to portray life in a way never before possible. It was inevitable that those early filmmakers would turn their attention to our fears, and the Horror Film was born.

1. EDISON’S FRANKENSTEIN (1910)
2. AUGEN DER MUMIE MA, DIE —aka— EYES OF THE MUMMY MA (1918)
3. DER GOLEM –aka— THE GOLEM (1920)
4. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920)
5. KABINETT DES DOKTOR CALIGARI, DAS —aka— CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, THE (1920)
6. NOSFERATU, EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS —aka— NOSFERATU, A SYMPHONY OF HORROR (1922)
7. PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE (1925)
8. METROPOLIS (1927)
9. THE UNKNOWN (1927)

The Golden Age, or The Age of Universal (1931-1945): By the mid 1920’s, Cinema had completed a transformation; from something that was primarily a means of artistic expression, to a mass-market source of entertainment. Horror, too, was a part of that revolution, as artistic works such as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) gave way to popular movies like Rupert Julian’s big-budget hit for Universal, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). With the premiere of two soon-to-be classics, DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, in 1931, Universal had established itself as the premiere studio in the genre, a position it would hold for most of two decades.

They weren’t the only players in the game, however. RKO Pictures had perhaps the biggest blockbuster of the early ‘30’s: KING KONG. The success of Universal and RKO drew other studios into the genre, making this a true Golden Age of the Horror Film.

10. DRACULA (1931)
11. M —aka— M - EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER (1931)
12. FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
13. MUMMY, THE (1932)
14. WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)
15. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932)
16. INVISIBLE MAN, THE (1933)
17. KING KONG (1933)
18. MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)
19. BLACK CAT, THE (1934)
20. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
21. WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)
22. DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936)
23. MUMMY’S HAND, THE (1940)
24. WOLF-MAN, THE (1941)
25. CAT PEOPLE (1942)
26. MUMMY’S TOMB, THE (1942)
27. FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN (1943)
28. THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)
29. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944)
30. HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)
31. BODY-SNATCHER, THE (1945)

The Decline of the Horror Film (1945-1949): As World War 2 drew to a close, so did the first great period of the Horror Film. Even Universal, the original “House that Horror Built,” shifted the emphasis away from the beloved monsters, transforming them into little more than comedic props. The growing popularity of Science-Fiction in a post-atomic age also worked to push traditional Horror off the screen.

32. HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)
33. PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, THE (1945)
34. BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, THE (1946)
35. BEDLAM (1946)
36. ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
37. ROPE (ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S…) (1948)

The Silver Age, or, When Science Attacks! (1950-1960): As the movie-going public, indeed, the public in general, began to come to terms with the “Bomb” and the constant threat of World War III, the meaning of Horror began to alter. Men who had liberated Nazi death camps or island-hopped across the Pacific, or women who had kept the nation functioning while the men were at war, weren’t likely to be frightened by Vampires and Werewolves any longer.

The new definition of Horror included such creatures, but they were no longer products of superstitious curses and Eastern European myth. Now Science was responsible for inflicting these maladies upon mankind. Science was responsible for giant ants and tarantulas, re-animated dinosaurs and insects, mutated monsters and carnivorous creatures. Science, in the form of invading aliens, served a dual purpose: Warning us of the constant threats we lived under while showing us that the American Spirit would always triumph.

38. DESTINATION MOON (1950)
39. THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, THE (1951)
40. DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE (1951)
41. RED PLANET MARS, THE (1952)
42. ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (1953)
43. HOUSE OF WAX (1953)
44. WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)
45. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)
46. GOJIRA (1954)
47. REAR WINDOW (1954)
48. THEM! (1954)
49. THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955)
50. FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)
51. GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956)
52. INVASION OF THE BODY-SNATCHERS (1956)
53. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)
54. DEADLY MANTIS, THE (1957)
55. I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF (1957)
56. INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, THE (1957)
57. MONOLITH MONSTERS, THE (1957)
58. BLOB, THE (1958)
59. FLY, THE (1958)
60. IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)
61. MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958)
62. PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1958)
63. TINGLER, THE (1959)
64. WASP WOMAN, THE (1960)
65. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960)

Birth of the New Realism and The Return of Horror (1955-1976): As the decade of the ‘50’s neared its midpoint, a new emphasis on more adult, more reality-based fiction of all types began to appear, first in Europe, then spreading to the U.S. Driven by directors like Alfred Hitchcock, and writers like Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, this new sense of realism began to seep into movies, and not just genre films.

These movies offered an alternative to those cool to the Giant Bugs and Alien Invasions so popular at the theaters of the period. Sex, taboo in Hollywood since the mid-‘30’s, was talked about in movies again, and violence was being portrayed on-screen in a realistic manner. Films such as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), PSYCHO (1960), and CAPE FEAR (1962) made monsters as real as the boy-next-door, and portrayed them as three-dimensional characters, making them even more terrifying.
Concurrent to this increased artistic freedom, (and benefiting greatly from it) a studio in Great Britain known primarily for crime films re-invented classic Horror. With the 1957 release of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Hammer Films burst upon the scene as a worthy successor to the crown once worn by Universal, and soon traditional Horror was firmly back in fashion. Hammer ruled the genre through most of the ‘60’s, remaking most of Universal’s old classics, spicing them up with scantily-clad, voluptuous women; vivid color; and two of the greatest actors of the genre: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Hammer was the face of Horror until a small, independent film, shot on a budget of roughly $250,000, premiered in 1968. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, directed by a young unknown named George Romero, was one of the most successful of the wave of Gore and Splatter films first popularized by Herschell Gordon Lewis, director of a string of blood-soaked Splatter films beginning with BLOOD FEAST (1963). It marked a dividing line between what had been considered Horror, and what would be from then on.

66. NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)
67. BAD SEED, THE (1956)
68. WEREWOLF, THE (1956)
69. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)
70. CURSE OF THE DEMON (1958)
71. HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
72. MUMMY, THE (1959)
73. PSYCHO (1960)
74. 13 GHOSTS (1960)
75. BRIDES OF DRACULA, THE (1960)
76. ET MOURIR DE PLAISIR —aka— BLOOD AND ROSES (1960)
77. INNOCENTS, THE (1961)
78. CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1962)
79. CAPE FEAR (1962)
80. BLOOD FEAST (1963)
81. BIRDS, THE (1963)
82. HAUNTING, THE (1963)
83. 2000 MANIACS (1964)
84. ULTIMO UOMO DELLA TERRA, L' —aka— LAST MAN ON EARTH, THE (1964)
85. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
86. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
87. TARGETS —aka— BEFORE I DIE (1968)
88. VAMPIRE LOVERS, THE (1970)
89. ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, THE (1971)
90. NIGHT STALKER, THE (1972)
91. TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)
92. EXORCIST, THE (1973)
93. LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE (1973)
94. WICKER MAN, THE (1973)
95. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
96. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
97. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
98. JAWS (1975)
99. PROFONDO ROSSO —aka— DEEP RED (1975)
100. ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, THE (1975)

The Rise of the Unstoppable Slasher, and the Unstoppable Franchises (1976-1990): Though Horror movie franchises were nothing new, dating back to the Universal FRANKENSTEIN and WOLF-MAN films of the late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s, the last few years of the ‘70’s and the entire decade of the ‘80’s saw them spring into existence with surprising regularity.

Beginning in 1976 with THE OMEN, and reaching its zenith in 1978 with (arguably) the best of them all, HALLOWEEN, between 1976 and 1990 fans witnessed the birth of no fewer than 13 major movie franchises, from the OMEN series to the CHILD’S PLAY films. Though most of these were hardly memorable, their effect on the genre was tremendously so. It brought an entirely new level of Profitability to Horror, and made it far more attractive to major Hollywood studios, which led of course to increasing amounts of Horror being available to fans.

The increasing popularity of cable TV and the VCR meant that movies that initially failed at the box office could still show a profit; indeed, most low-budget films no longer saw a theatrical release. All these factors combined to grow fans of the genre, and to lay the foundation for the decade to come.

101. OMEN, THE (1976)
102. HILLS HAVE EYES, THE (1977)
103. HALLOWEEN (1978)
104. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
105. DAY OF THE WOMAN —aka— I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)
106. ALIEN (1979)
107. FOG, THE (1979)
108. PHANTASM (1979)
109. FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
110. MANIAC (1980)
111. SHINING, THE (1980)
112. AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
113. FRIDAY THE 13TH: PART II (1981)
114. HALLOWEEN II (1981)
115. HOWLING, THE (1981)
116. PROWLER, THE (1981)
117. EVIL DEAD (1982)
118. POLTERGEIST (1982)
119. NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, A (1984)
120. RE-ANIMATOR (1985)
121. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)
122. HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II (1987)
123. HELLRAISER (1987)
124. CHILD’S PLAY (1988)
125. DUE OCCHI DIABOLI —aka— TWO EVIL EYES (1990)

The “Dead Zone” of the ‘90’s (1991-1995): The first half of the decade of the ‘90’s marked another period of relative stagnation in the genre. Though there were superb Horror Films produced during this period, most notably SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), Horror in the early ‘90’s had no direction, no definition. There were excellent movies, to be sure, but there wasn’t a theme to the genre at this time, nor was there a drive to bring great Horror to the screen.

126. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE (1991)
127. BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)
128. INNOCENT BLOOD (1992)
129. ARMY OF DARKNESS (Bruce Campbell vs. THE...) —aka— EVIL DEAD 3 (1993)
130. JURASSIC PARK (1993)
131. SE7EN —aka— SEVEN (1995)
132. TALES FROM THE HOOD (1995)

The Renaissance of Horror (1996-Present): The latter half of the ‘90’s gave rise to a new era in Horror, one in which a number of factors combined synergistically to produce perhaps the greatest sustained growth in the genre since at least the early ‘80’s, perhaps since the glory days of Hammer. This combination, (increased star power; new, talented directors; tremendously improved special effects; and fresh interpretations of older classics) drew audiences in droves to the theaters.

Satellite Television, (with hundreds of channels looking for programming) began showing films, including genre films, that hadn’t been seen for decades. The increased availability of DVD’s, and the fact that their low cost of manufacture made many obscure, heretofore unseen classics financially viable for release, also fed the public hunger for Horror, while at the same time increasing it’s appetite.

The explosion in popularity of Horror throughout the first decade of the new century meant that filmmakers were eager to churn out anything that would fit the genre, and to do so as quickly and easily as possible. The remake cycle began in 1999 with Dark Castle’s remake of the 1959 film HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. This excellent remake, directed by William Malone and starring Geoffrey Rush, Ali Larter, and Taye Diggs, was tremendously successful both at the box-office and in Home Video release, and soon fans were inundated by remakes.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t good, original Horror Films over the past decade. It simply means that very few of the came from the major Hollywood producers. The success of films like 28 DAYS LATER and DOG SOLDIERS sparked a resurgence in British Horror Films unparalleled since the mid-‘70’s witnessed the death of Hammer, and led to the best film of the past ten years, SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004).

As the decade drew to a close, the convergence of digital video, desktop editing, and the internet meant that virtually anyone could now make a movie, edit it, and market it directly to the fans. Most of these movies are exactly what you’d expect from such productions, though some are actually worth seeking out. The real value of such efforts lies in their ability to drive the genre in directions that the major producers are unwilling to go.

133. SCREAM (1996)
134. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)
135. INDEPENDENCE DAY —aka— ID4 (1996)
136. I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997)
137. JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES (1997)
138. MEN IN BLACK (1997)
139. STEPHEN KING’S THE NIGHT FLIER (1997)
140. BLADE (1998)
141. URBAN LEGEND (1998)
142. BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, THE (1999)
143. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE (1999)
144. IDLE HANDS (1999)
145. LAKE PLACID (1999)
146. MUMMY, THE (1999)
147. SIXTH SENSE (1999)
148. SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)
149. STIR OF ECHOES (1999)
150. AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
151. FINAL DESTINATION (2000)
152. GINGER SNAPS (2000)
153. SCARY MOVIE (2000)
154. SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)
155. BONES (2001)
156. FRAILTY (2001)
157. FROM HELL (2001)
158. JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001)
159. JOY RIDE (2001)
160. OTHERS, THE (2001)
161. SESSION 9 (2001)
162. THIR13EN GHOSTS (2001)
163. 28 DAYS LATER (2002)
164. BELOW (2002)
165. BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)
166. DOG SOLDIERS (2002)
167. RED DRAGON (2002)
168. RESIDENT EVIL (2002)
169. RING, THE (2002)
170. ROSE RED (2002)
171. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003)
172. JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2003)
173. MONSTER MAN (2003)
174. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003)
175. UNDERWORLD (2003)
176. WRONG TURN (2003)
177. DEAD AND BREAKFAST (2004)
178. GOJIRA: FAINARU UÔZU —aka— GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (2004)
179. SAW (2004)
180. SECRET WINDOW (2004)
181. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)
182. FEAST (2005)
183. KING KONG (2005)
184. LAND OF THE DEAD (2005)
185. SIN CITY (2005)
186. BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)
187. DESCENT, THE (2006)
188. BLACK SHEEP (2007)
189. DEAD SILENCE (2007)
190. GRINDHOUSE (2007)
191. I AM LEGEND (2007)
192. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)
193. I SELL THE DEAD (2008)
194. DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
195. MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (2009)
196. ORPHAN (2009)
197. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009)
198. ZOMBIELAND (2009)
199. THE CRAZIES (2010)
200. THE WOLFMAN (2010)

The Future (?): The resurgence of Horror that began in the late 1990’s has shown little sign of weakening in the near future, though what is considered Horror is, as always, in a constant state of flux. There’s little doubt that this “YouTube” culture we live in will continue to drive the genre in new and amazing directions, some of which will work, some that won’t. Hollywood, in spite of itself, will have to adapt to new trends in Horror, one of which may be that Hollywood will no longer be the center of the universe for filmmaking.

Whatever the future holds for fans of Horror Films, there’s one thing that is certain: Horror, like the monsters that personify it, will never die… at least, not for long.



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Dracula Reborn: HORROR OF DRACULA and the Rise of Hammer

The mid 1940’s to mid 1950’s was a period of decline for Classic Horror. Monsters were no longer tuxedo-clad vampires or shambling, cloth-wrapped mummies. Monsters were now gigantic insects, radioactive mutants, and alien invaders. What vampires and werewolves were to be found were products of science tampering with nature, not the ancient undead or supernatural curses.

Two prime examples of this are a pair of films released in 1957: THE VAMPIRE, and I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF.

THE VAMPIRE, directed by Paul Landres, was a nondescript programmer from Gramercy Pictures, distributed by United Artists; not a terrible film, but hardly memorable. A doctor, while on a quest to improve his mind, tries an extract of vampire bat blood, with predictable results.

Gene Fowler Jr.’s I WAS A TEEN-AGE WEREWOLF on the other hand, became something of a cult-classic, primarily because of the screen debut of a youthful Michael Landon rather than the film’s inherent quality. Landon plays Tony Rivers, a juvenile delinquent placed under the care of a psychologist (Whit Bissell).

The psychologist performs some unauthorized experiments on the young man, using hypnosis to regress him to a point in man’s development where he is a savage, feral beast. Here too, the results are entirely predictable and, for the junior wolf-man, unfortunate.

Such was the state of our classic creatures of horror through most of the decade of the 1950’s. But the pendulum was beginning to swing back towards the classics, and two unrelated events provided the impetus for that change of fortune. The first was the release, in June of 1957, of Hammer Films THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, launching the British studio to the forefront of the horror genre. Introducing Hammer’s Dynamic Duo of Horror, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, along with the studio’s star director, Terence Fisher, this film sparked a resurgence of interest in the classics, as well as changed the look of Horror Films.

Hammer Film Productions had been around, in its then-current form, since shortly after the end of World War II. A child of Col. James Carreras, Hammer was very much a small family business in the mid-1950’s, known primarily for crime, adventure, and war pictures. Ensconced at Bray Studios, Down Place, in Berkshire, a small, tightly-knit group of artists and craftsmen would create some of the greatest Horror Films ever produced, working on budgets that were fractions of what was typical in a Hollywood production.

They accomplished these miracles, at least in the beginning, through the efforts of a few very talented people, the people who created the “Hammer Look”… people such as Michael Carreras, the son of James, Tony Nelson-Keyes, Tony Hinds, and Jimmy Sangster. Jack Asher’s superb photography brought the Hammer horrors to life, painted in brilliant colors across a canvas laid before the viewer by Bernard Robinson’s perfect production and art designs.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the film that established the pattern for the “Hammer Look”… bold, vibrant colors, lush period sets and costumes, and, at least at this point in time, quality acting, writing, and directing. Peter Cushing, as the mad genius Dr. Victor Frankenstein, carries the film, creating a character at once evil yet complex, someone the viewer is unable to see completely as a villain. Lee’s Monster, by comparison, is simply cruel and brutish, lacking any of the pathos and humanity of Karloff’s creation.

Philip Leakey’s make-up, constrained as it was by threat of legal action from Universal if it too closely resembled Jack Pierce’s trademarked conception, was generic and unimpressive, doing nothing to convey the monster’s origins the way Pierce’s did for Karloff. Karloff looked like a patchwork, a being stitched together from rotting cadavers into a less than perfect whole; Lee, on the other hand, looked like nothing more than the common zombie that would populate Horror Films beginning little more than a decade later. It was not an effective look.

While the film was much closer in plot to Shelley’s original tale, it was all gloss and glitter; beautiful to look at, but lacking the heart and soul of James Whale’s landmark film, and wholly inferior to it. This movie, like Hammer Films itself, was a gorgeous façade, with very little of substance supporting it.

The second major development in the restoration of classic horror occurred in the fall of 1957, when Universal, through an arrangement with Screen Gems, released their Shock Theater package to Television stations around the country. Composed of some of their greatest Horror Films, including FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF-MAN, and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, this led to an explosion of Hosted Horror programs on Friday and Saturday nights. Though Horror Hosts had existed prior to the Shock Theater release, it was the flood of high-quality movies and the success of hosts such as Zacherley in New York and Vampira in Los Angeles that spurred stations from Atlanta to Minneapolis to develop their own late-night Horror shows.

These trends continued into 1958, and on the 22nd of May of that year, at the Gaumont Theater in London, Hammer’s second blockbuster premiered. HORROR OF DRACULA, once again directed by Fisher and starring Cushing and Lee, took the basic blueprint laid down by the previous film and set it in concrete, defining for the next twelve years the look and texture of classic horror. Not until DRACULA A.D. 1972 was there anything more than a qualitative change in Hammer’s Dracula franchise, and decidedly not for the better.

This time however there would be a clear choice between good and evil, as Cushing was cast as Dr. Van Helsing, the bloody Count’s nemesis. Though he ably demonstrated that he could play evil convincingly in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, it’s as the heroic Van Helsing that he found his greatest role.

Where, in 1931’s DRACULA, Edward Van Sloan had essayed an elderly, superstitious professor (for all his scientific training, Van Sloan’s character was little more than a village wise woman…), Cushing portrayed Van Helsing as a young, strong, active combatant against evil, seeking scientific explanations for the vampire’s existence, and scientific means to destroy him. Universal’s Van Helsing was a teacher; Hammer’s was a warrior, and a worthy foe for the Prince of Darkness.

And what a Prince of Darkness he faced.

For more than a quarter of a century previously, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the eponymous Count from Bram Stoker’s novel had been the model that moviemakers followed, and moviegoers wanted. The image of Dracula as an urbane, sophisticated gentleman, clad in black-tie formality, had become ingrained into the consciousness of Horror fans through multiple iterations of the Count and his clones.

Whether portrayed by Lugosi himself, Lon Chaney Jr., or John Carradine, the American image of the Vampire was that of Bela, in tie and tails, top hat and cape. His Dracula had a slow, languid quality, almost hypnotic to watch. It took no stretch of the imagination to picture a beautiful young woman falling victim to his spell. Dracula, as created by Lugosi, was first and foremost a seducer, a debaucher. He was, at heart, a lecherous old man.

Christopher Lee’s reinvention of the Count cast aside this “Undead Man-about-Town…” image of Dracula. While the wardrobe was little changed, the vampire inside underwent a radical transformation.

Lee’s Dracula exuded youth, power, strength, vitality. Lugosi was polished, refined; Lee was a barely concealed savage, like a wolf masquerading as a dog. Lee’s Dracula was no seducer of women; he was a rapist, in spirit if not in fact; taking his women by force, not by guile. However, in a typically post-Victorian British Male Freudian manner, his victims were all too willing accomplices to their own debasement, eager to offer up their throats for his hungry kisses.

Dracula, as rendered by Christopher Lee, was an animalistic creature of the night, savage, brutal… and just like the studio that spawned him, new and exciting.

That phrase also serves well to describe the film itself. Though no more faithful to the source material than Browning’s 1931 film had been, this script, by Jimmy Sangster, possesses an energy totally lacking in the original. Where John L. Balderston’s script for the ’31 version had been stiff and stagey, betraying its origins, Sangster, with some alterations by Fisher, crafted a script that fairly flew from plot-point to plot-point, dispensing with everything that failed to advance the story.

Gone was the slow moving, talky introductory scene of the Browning film. Here we meet Jonathan Harker (not the extraneous character of Renfield…) already arrived at Castle Dracula. In a brief voice-over, taken from the pages of his diary, we are told all we need to know: Harker, played ably by John Van Eyssen, is a friend and colleague of a Dr. Van Helsing, and is there to find and kill Count Dracula, and end his “…reign of terror.”

Harker is found out, however, and infected by a vampire’s bite. Racing against time before he too becomes one of the undead, he finds the daytime resting place of Dracula and his consort. In typical Horror movie style, he makes a monumental blunder and, as the sun is setting, decides to stake the female vampire first. This he does successfully, only to find the sun has set and Dracula has awakened.

The scene shifts to a small village Gasthaus, decked out with wreaths of garlic, where we first meet Dr. Van Helsing. He’s in search of his friend Harker, and the inn was his last reported address. The innkeeper is less than forthcoming with Van Helsing, but Inga, the serving girl, gives him Harker’s diary, found at the crossroads near the Castle.

The book leads him to the castle, now abandoned by Dracula. As he nears the castle, Van Helsing is nearly run down by a fast moving hearse, bearing a white casket inside it. Entering the castle, Van Helsing finds the body of his now undead friend, and releases his soul from its torment.

He then travels to the home of Arthur and Mina Holmwood (Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling) to inform them, and Miss Lucy Holmwood, Arthur’s sister and the fiancée of Harker, of his death. He provides no details, but simply tells them that Harker had died ten days before. Holmwood treats him coldly, and, as soon as his news is delivered, asks him to leave. The Holmwoods decide to keep the information from Lucy, whose health is fragile. However, she is already aware of her fiancé’s death, and seems strangely unaffected by this knowledge. As her brother bends to kiss her goodnight, he fails to notice the two puncture wounds in her neck, over her jugular vein.

Once she is alone, she removes a silver crucifix from her neck and opens a door leading out onto the grounds. As she lies back on the bed, anticipation on her face, Dracula appears in the doorway, and shadows and darkness engulf the young woman.

The next morning, the Holmwoods are shocked and dismayed by the deterioration in Lucy’s condition, as is Dr. Seward, the attending physician. He suggests a second opinion, and Mina decides to seek help from Van Helsing. He immediately recognizes the symptoms for what they are, and issues strict orders for the household to follow: All doors and windows in Lucy’s room are to remain tightly closed and locked between sunset and sunrise; and her room is to be filled with boughs of garlic flowers. Any deviation from these instructions, he adds ominously, would result in her death.

Lucy, however, convinces a maid to remove the flowers and open the doors, allowing her bloodthirsty lover into her bedroom. The next morning, she is found dead, drained of blood.

Holmwood is devastated by his sister’s death, and asks Van Helsing to leave them to their grief. The doctor apologizes, but informs them of the true nature of Harker’s, and now Lucy’s, deaths. He leaves Harker’s diary with Holmwood, with the admonition that if he could not believe Van Helsing, then certainly he could trust his late friend’s own words.

The diary doesn’t fully convince Holmwood, but when the little daughter of the maid is nearly attacked by someone she recognizes as “Aunt Lucy”, he goes to the family mausoleum, and finds her coffin empty. He waits for her return, and is shocked to see her walking towards him, leading the young girl by the hand. He calls to her, and she releases the girl. She approaches her brother, reaching out her arms to embrace him, mouth opening to reveal the elongated canines of the vampire.

Suddenly, a cross is thrust into view… Van Helsing has arrived just in time to save Holmwood from his sister’s bloodlust. He presses the cross against the flesh of her forehead, burning the image of the icon into her skin. She breaks away, rushing back into the mausoleum, and back to her coffin. They follow her in, and Holmwood is shocked to see the evil that is manifested in Lucy’s face; her formerly beautiful, innocent features now twisted into a vulpine grimace. He asks Van Helsing what can be done to release her from this vile curse. The answer is simple, though horrifying: They must drive a wooden stake into her heart, finally ending her existence, and releasing her spirit.

But, before they take that step, they should consider one thing: Lucy can be used to lead them to her master. They can follow her straight to Dracula’s lair. Holmwood, however, balks at this. He wants his sister freed from her curse now, before she can defile others as she has been defiled, spreading Dracula’s corruption like a virus. Van Helsing regrets his decision, but cannot in good conscience deny the grieving man. With a sigh of resignation, he drives the stake into Lucy’s chest.

With the deed done, he leads Holmwood over to his sister’s coffin. Once again, innocence and peace have returned to her visage… Lucy Holmwood is finally at rest.

The pair returns to Holmwood’s home, and begin to lay plans for an assault on Dracula himself. Holmwood still is in disbelief, despite the evidence of his own experiences. He questions Van Helsing on the legendary aspects of vampires, their ability to transform themselves, for instance. A common fallacy, he is told. Vampires have no such power. Van Helsing has devoted his life to the study of these creatures, and even his knowledge barely scratches the surface.

The first priority they have is to locate his resting place. Dracula must reside in his native soil by day, and Van Helsing believes he has a clue. The hearse that nearly ran him down that day at the castle must have been carrying Dracula in his box of earth, and to get to Karlstadt, it had to pass through the border crossing. There they might find records of the crossing, and a destination for Dracula’s coffin.

However, the border official is less than cooperative with the duo, even after Van Helsing presents his medical credentials. Holmwood, however, has better credentials… cash. A bribe reveals that the coffin was consigned to an undertaker in Karlstadt, and gives them the address of the establishment.

At that moment, Mina is receiving a message from a street urchin, informing her that Mr. Arthur Holmwood wishes her to meet him after sundown at 49 Freidrichstrasse… the same address that now holds Dracula’s coffin. She goes, oblivious to the danger, and as she enters the storeroom of the undertaker’s shop, the camera shifts to a single white casket… as the lid slowly slides open.

The next morning, Van Helsing and Holmwood have returned, though only temporarily. They have yet to visit the undertaker, hopefully to find Dracula helpless in his coffin. As they head out, they encounter Mina, returning from a night with the object of their hunt. She explains that she had taken an early morning stroll in the garden. There is an odd look of contentment, even satisfaction, on her face, and it’s perhaps a poor reflection on her husband that he does not recognize it for what it is, instead inquiring as to her health. She reassures him, and the pair leaves on their mission. At the undertaker’s, the situation is worse than they had expected. Not only is Dracula not there, but his coffin has been relocated. They’ve lost their only clue to his whereabouts.

Back at the Holmwood house, they quietly discuss their options over maps of the area. Holmwood remembers a small, neglected graveyard in the vicinity; with no other logical place to start, they decide to begin their hunt there. He turns to say good-bye to his wife, and asks her to wear, as a personal favor to him, a small silver cross. She resists, but he places it in her hand. Instantly she screams, and falls unconscious to the floor. As Van Helsing rushes to her aid, he opens her clenched fist, to reveal the shape of the cross, burned into the palm.

Holmwood is angry with himself for not following Van Helsing’s suggestion to use Lucy to lead them to Dracula, but Van Helsing tells him not to worry; there is still time to save Mina, and she can serve the same purpose he had in mind for Lucy. They will keep watch over the house later that night, and catch Dracula when he attempts to reach her.

That night, the two men patrol the grounds, keeping a watchful eye on the house. Mina watches them from her window, then turns to open her bedroom door. Below, in the foyer of the house, stands Dracula. With desire on her face, she watches him approach her. He closes the door as he enters her bedroom, and as she falls back onto the bed, he throws himself on her.

As dawn breaks, the men end their vigil. Van Helsing decides to stay there and rest, and Holmwood heads up to bed. A sudden cry brings the doctor running to find a scene of horror: Mina, apparently lifeless, rivulets of dried blood tracing paths down her pale throat.

Van Helsing hastily gives the woman a transfusion, using her husband as a donor. This saves her life, though she remains under Dracula’s control. He sends Holmwood down to rest, with an admonition to drink some wine to fortify his strength, then turns his attention to caring for his patient.

Later, he joins Holmwood in the parlor. The shaken man has taken his advice, finishing off a bottle of wine. He asks the maid to bring up another bottle from the cellar, but she demurs, saying that Mrs. Holmwood had forbidden her to go into the cellar. That sends a jolt through Van Helsing, who rushes down to the cellar. There he finds Dracula’s coffin, empty. At that moment, the cellar door opens, and just for a moment hunter and hunted stand face-to-face. Dracula runs out, pulling the door shut behind him. After Van Helsing insures that Dracula will not return to his coffin by placing a silver cross on the bed of earth, he and Holmwood give chase, and a scream leads them upstairs. Gerda, the maid, has been attacked by Dracula, though not harmed. But Dracula has taken Mina with him as he fled the house.

There is only one place he can go for shelter before the sun rises, and that is back home to his castle. They find a dead coachman; Dracula has killed the man and stolen his vehicle, and is racing to get home before dawn. They must catch up to him before he can hide himself in the basements and catacombs of his home, or they might be searching for him for years.

And for Mina.

Dracula arrives at the castle with mere moments to spare, and he must first open a grave for Mina. Rapidly he digs a shallow trench, drops her in, and begins shoveling earth in over her unconscious form. She awakens with a scream just as Van Helsing and her husband pull up in their carriage.

Holmwood leaps to his wife’s aid, as Van Helsing pursues Dracula into the castle. Cornered, Dracula fights with Van Helsing, gaining the upper hand, and slowly drawing near the doctor’s exposed throat. Van Helsing breaks the vampire’s grip, however, and notices a thin shaft of sunlight stabbing through closed curtains. He rips the curtains down, flooding the hall with light. With a pair of crossed candlesticks he forces Dracula into the sunlight, where he crumbles into dust. The threat is over, Mina is freed, and Dracula is finally dead.

This was perhaps Hammer’s best production, with the possible exception of the following year’s THE MUMMY. All the important elements were in place… Sangster’s script, Asher’s photography, the performances of Cushing and Lee, all tied together by Fisher’s competent, workmanlike direction. Together, these artisans equaled more than the sum of their individual talents, and for the brief period of time that they were all together at Bray, they produced some of the best Horror Films the genre has ever seen.

The story of the rise of Hammer Films is very much the story of a few gifted individuals in precisely the right place at precisely the right time. It wasn’t due to the inherent strengths of Hammer; there were none, as events unfolding less than two decades later would pointedly demonstrate.

When this group began to dissolve within five years, Hammer Films would take a hit, in terms of quality, from which it would never recover. The Hammer look would soon degenerate into an assembly-line, mass-produced commodity, churned out as rapidly as possible, sold lock, stock, and residual rights to the highest bidder.

Hammer, for most of its existence, lived in a perpetual cycle of brief periods of plenty broken by long stretches of lean; living from paycheck to paycheck, always trying to catch onto the latest trend. For the most part, they succeeded, at least until the fragile house of cards that was the company’s financial structure came crashing down around the head of Michael Carreras.

But in 1958, that was still twenty years away. In 1958, they weren’t trying to follow the trends, they were creating them.

In 1958, Hammer Films released HORROR OF DRACULA… and the renaissance of classic horror began.

[*Primary reference for this article was the excellent book from Denis Meikle, The History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.]




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The Short, Amazing Career of Val Lewton

In a brief, four-year association with RKO Pictures, Val Lewton produced eleven films, nine of which were Horror Films, eight of which were successful to some degree. Those nine movies were films that took Horror fans in directions that had not been explored previously in American genre cinema. These were not the Monster-laden Classics of Universal, or their cheaper-than-dirt clones from the half-dozen or so “Poverty Row” studios. Though the titles were as lurid and enticing as anything from Monogram or PRC, these were Horror Films for the thinker. These were serious in a way that Universal had never tried to be.

Born Vladimir Leventon in Yalta, Crimea in 1904, Lewton’s mother and aunt moved the family to Berlin in 1906, then to the United States in 1909. Lewton, a born storyteller, began writing as a teen, selling his stories to anyone who would purchase them. Mainstream magazines, pulps, even pornographic publishers—if they would pay him for it, he would write it. Several of the less savory tales were published under the pen name of Carlos Keith, a name he would use again in Hollywood.

Lewton worked under David O. Selznick at M-G-M as a story editor, contributing ideas and scenes to many films, though usually without credit. One scene he is responsible for came about due to one of the few wrong decisions he made about a movie. He was reportedly opposed to the filming of GONE WITH THE WIND, feeling it would be a Box-Office flop. The legend has it that Selznick made him contribute one scene to the film. Not wanting to be associated with the movie, he set out to write a scene that would never get shot, a scene that would be cut before production. However, Selznick loved the scene, it was filmed, and it became one of the signature images of the movie—the scene in the Atlanta railroad depot, as the camera pulls back from Scarlett to reveal the hundreds of dying and wounded men.

In 1942, RKO Pictures was on the verge of bankruptcy. Orson Welles’ twin epics CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, though well received critically, were financial failures of the first order. Charles Koerner, head of the studio, canned Welles and ordered that no more “Artistic” movies be made. The success enjoyed by rival Universal Studios inspired him to launch a Horror unit at RKO, and Lewton, remembered as a writer of genre fiction, was hired to run it. Koerner may have expected typical, “Universal-style” monster movies from his new producer. What he got was anything but.

For the next four years, Lewton and his handpicked group of writers, directors, and actors produced nine of the most intelligent, serious, adult Horror Films ever made, certainly for those times. Gone were the popcorn plots and made-up monsters that defined 1940’s Horror. The fiends that haunted Lewton’s nightmares were all the more monstrous because they were so very normal; outwardly looking like the rest of us, yet inwardly evil and terrifying. These films are: THE CAT PEOPLE; I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE; THE LEOPARD MAN; THE SEVENTH VICTIM; THE GHOST SHIP; CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE; THE BODY SNATCHER; ISLE OF THE DEAD; and BEDLAM. All have been released within the past few years, in a pricey, though tremendously well-done, five-disc collector’s set from Turner Home Entertainment.

The things that critics so rightly hail Hitchcock for doing in the ‘60’s, Lewton and directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson were perfecting in the ‘40’s, such as the famous “Bus” shot from THE CAT PEOPLE and the dark, atmospheric lighting that blankets all the Lewton Horror Films. Most importantly, Lewton’s films let the audience fill-in the ‘dark corners’ with their imaginations, painting details far more frightening than any studio, then or now, could produce. And while most producers have little effect on the style of a film, Lewton was hands-on with every aspect of production, and all nine of these movies unmistakably bear his imprint.

Working with titles mandated by RKO executives for their sheer luridness, he nonetheless crafted intelligent, effective tales of terror to fit those pulp titles. Where most producers would’ve been content simply to give the studio what they thought they wanted, Lewton fought to keep his people together, and to make the movies he wanted to make.

RKO’s Production Supervisor Lou Ostrow wanted Jacques Tourneur fired four days into the production of CAT PEOPLE; Lewton went straight to Koerner in order to keep him on the film. Following the success of the first few of his Horror Films, Lewton was offered to chance to move up to an A-grade production; he turned the offer down when told he couldn’t use Mark Robson to direct it. In a business where some people would throw their own mothers to the sharks for fifteen minutes to pitch a script, Lewton displayed a unique level of loyalty to his creative people.

As the Horror cycle wound down following the end of World War II, Lewton finished his run at RKO with three Period horrors, all starring the Master of terror, Boris Karloff. The first of these, THE BODY-SNATCHER, was the also the best, featuring Bela Lugosi in the final pairing of the two horror icons.

Lewton left RKO in 1946 to form an independent production company, though the mainstream success he sought would elude him. He would make only three more pictures, all somewhat lackluster, prior to his premature death from a heart attack in 1951. He was less than two months shy of his 47th birthday.

The legacy Val Lewton left behind far outweighs the number of his contributions to, or the brevity of his work in, the horror genre. Without Lewton, there might not been a Hitchcock; at least, not as we know him. Without the shower scene in THE SEVENTH VICTIM, would there had been a much more famous shower scene 16 years later? I don’t know, but I doubt it. No director, not even the great Alfred Hitchcock, works in a vacuum. He was at the least familiar with the Lewton film, if not directly inspired by it.

While nothing can supplant my love and respect for the great Universal horrors, that love is not blind. I see them for what they are, at least what the 1940’s vintage Uni-Horrors are: mindless, popcorn-selling, seat-filling ways to kill an hour or so. And while Lewton’s films did the same, they also did something else: They showed us that Horror could be smart, and that the scariest place in the world is in our own imaginations.




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Mombie's Musings: For the Love of a Horror-Host

It has become painfully apparent to me that I am getting older. My children are growing and the world is changing… MY world is changing. As I go through this painful lack of control, I find myself more nostalgic every day. I also find myself losing patience with overused words or phrases as well. This impatience I completely blame on my retail career which spanned nearly two decades. Catchphrases such as “new and improved,” “rollout,” and “ramp-up” made my head cringe, and I would go out of my way to substitute ANY word or phrase just so I didn’t have to hear them again. Since leaving the retail world to concentrate on raising my boys, I have become more cognizant of what is going on socially and politically… and well… I don’t have to tell anyone that politicians can overuse a phrase more than Carter has little pills. Oh, did that lose some of you? Okay… let’s try another… politicians can overuse a phrase more than Nintendo has Pokémon characters. There is one phrase… one I wish they would FOREVER cease to use, and that is “Fearmonger,” because to me… there was only one Fearmonger, and he invaded our home on Saturday nights in the early 1970’s. It is to him I owe a deep gratitude for the love of classic horror movies that I still have today.

In 1971, the Louisville TV market boasted only three channels (not counting the PBS channels, which you could always get in). My boys always find this amusing that we only had THREE channels to choose from, and when there was “nothing” on… well… Today, we have hundreds of channels to choose from, and STILL there is NOTHING on. In February of that year, an upstart “Independent” channel came into town, WDRB-TV 41 (now Fox). You would have thought the heavens had opened up. Finally, WE had a clown show (Presto was his name), and we would get treated to a myriad of syndicated shows like Ultraman, The Patty Duke Show, and The Munsters. Then, a beautiful thing happened in March—Fright Night premiered at 7 p.m. on Saturday nights! This was especially great for someone my age at the time (I was 10 and my three younger siblings stair-stepped down in years from me). Fright Night typically ran a double-feature, so it would fill the time slot until 10 p.m. Now, Fright Night was the Shock Theater package of films primarily containing some of the Universal and MGM classic movies that had great movie runs, and some that had B- and perhaps C-movie status. You would be treated to THEM! one week and a couple of weeks later have to contend with Ed Wood’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER. The variety was fantastic….and to top it all off, we had a dry-humored, low-budget Horror Host to match this set-up.

Charles Kissinger was the Fearmonger. Using just a light on his face, and cracking some very...very…worn out jokes, the Fearmonger would introduce the movie and occasionally pop in-between commercial breaks. It was so low budget that we could even recreate the Fearmonger at home. Frankly…when I saw THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT….there seemed to be a bit of Fearmonger-ish camera work there. The humor was SO much appreciated too…I mean, BACK THEN…THOSE MOVIES WERE SCARY!!! I’ll never forget the torture after one showing of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, for YEARS my brothers saw fit to torture my sister and me by pounding on our bedroom door at night and yelling, “MORGAN! COME OUT! COME OUT!! MORGAN!!” I’m not sure how many years went by before I could actually watch that movie alone, but I have recovered from that psychological sibling beat down. In fact, LMOE is one of my favorite movies and I watch it now several times a year. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Vincent Price is in it either.

Fright Night ran until September 6, 1975, and it is sad that none of the tapes of the shows exist anymore. Oh maybe perhaps SOMEONE out there recorded something…and has it buried in their barn… All I know is I have no memory of the theme song. I have a faint recollection of the Fearmonger’s voice (seemingly a cross between Karloff and Barnabas Collins). I only have a deep-appreciated love for those old movies…and this love I have passed down to my boys as well. It is difficult to believe that nearly 40 years have gone by now, and I have seen several different horror host. Many of them are much splashier with bigger budgets… Many of them injecting their own “brand” of humor into their characters and all of them with the same goal in mind—DO NOT LET THESE CLASSIC MOVIES FADE AWAY.

For me, I will always remember Saturday nights as Fright Night, and Charles Kissinger’s portrayal as the Fearmonger saying, “Good evening, Fright Night fans…”

Shhhhh….I hear pounding on my door…
I’d like to thank the following website for its information and dedication to Charles Kissinger: The Fearmonger's Chambers

Sheila “Mombie” Fiene






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Unimonster's Screening Room: GARGALESE — THE TICKLE MONSTER

Title: GARGALESE — THE TICKLE MONSTER

Date of Theatrical Release: N/A

MPAA Rating: Unrated


I don’t often discuss short subjects here, not because of a lack of interest in them, but because until recently there were so few of them worth mentioning. Though Horror is particularly well suited to exploration through the medium of the short film, until the development of the “YouTube” culture it was very difficult for filmmakers to market their short films to the audiences that would be the most appreciative of them. That is no longer an issue, and short Horror Films of every possible description now flood the internet.

One of these short films is from a team of filmmakers headed by Dean Millermon. GARGALESE — THE TICKLE MONSTER is many things—but ‘easy to describe’ is not among them. This 17-minute short (though Millermon states that the ‘finished’ release might come in at a 15-minute runtime) concerns an alien invader, described by some as a “tickle bear,” who crash-lands in suburban Illinois. This begins an enjoyable, humorous if not particularly logical, sequence of events which adds a whole new meaning to the term “die laughing.”

Directed by Millermon, who co-wrote the script with Ryan Guenther, and produced by Brian Kallies and Laura Szymber, this short film is a great example of a small group of people using their talents and abilities to overcome an obvious lack of funds. What’s more, they appear to be having a great time while doing so. Axiom Megamedia is the production company, and one would hope that we see more from them in the near future.

As Gargalese encounters various residents of Northern Illinois, it mutates through several forms, emerging from a fallen meteor in the shape of an eight-inch tall, toothsome, sharp-clawed “tickle bear” before a shotgun blast from farmer Mike (Dana Gasser) spurs a change into a larger, more dangerous creature. The alien’s efforts to return home leads him on a journey through greater Elgin, Illinois—and introduces him to a number of surprised, and very ticklish, humans. The movie also stars Megan Hincks as Brenda, a human unlike any other in Gargalese’s experience.

While GARGALESE — THE TICKLE MONSTER is very definitely a low-budget project, it’s a well-crafted one, and it benefits from the fact that the horror is firmly tongue-in-cheek. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, which allows the audience to overlook the somewhat silly premise and play along. Millermon’s direction is good; everyone’s able to stay focused on their work, and the story progresses smoothly from point to point. The script is adequate; not great, but equal to the task.

The cast is surprisingly good, especially considering the independent, low-budget nature of the production. Particularly worthy of note are the three leads—Hincks, Dave Hunter as Brenda’s husband Ronnie, and Mack Perry as his uncle Glen. The two men soon find themselves confronting Gargalese, but when the alien encounters the very cute, redheaded Brenda… well, as the ex-husband of a redhead, all I can say is that we should have a brigade of redheads standing by in case of an alien invasion.

GARGALESE — THE TICKLE MONSTER is being screened at the Women in Horror film fest at Chicago’s historic Portage Theater on the first of May. For those not able to attend that festival, information on future screenings can be found at the movie’s Facebook fan page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Gargalese-The-Tickle-Monster/108685912506693?ref=ts. If you’re a fan of indie Horror or short subjects, then you owe it to yourself to find a way to see this movie.

Don’t let the Tickle Bear get YOU.





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DVD Review: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS

Title: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS

Year of Release—Film: 1953

Year of Release—DVD: 2003

DVD Label: Warner Home Video




Ray Harryhausen is, to a generation of monster fans, the greatest Special Effects Animator of all. The protégé of Willis O’Brien, the genius who brought King Kong to life, Harryhausen had gotten his first feature job in 1949, as an assistant to O’Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. But this film was his big break, and he made the most of it.

The plot is simple, and works well, though the script falls apart somewhat in the details. A Rhedosaurus, entombed in arctic ice, is awakened by a nuclear test. Soon he is making his way to warmer climes, following the eastern coast of North America. Of course, this brings him into conflict with the U.S. Army and Navy, and better than average use is made of military surplus stock footage.
The Rhedosaurus’ attack on the lighthouse is a spectacular example of animation, and the climactic battle at Coney Island is one of the best monster scenes of the ‘50’s. It’s easy to understand why audiences were truly amazed at this Pre-GOJIRA rampage.

Though Harryhausen’s effects are not quite as polished in this film as they would be in later pictures, his talent shines through the occasional technical glitches, and it’s easy to overlook the few problems the movie has. While it’s not the best Giant Beast movie out there, it is a great one, and it’s often forgotten that Harryhausen did it a year before Toho released their King of all monsters onto an unsuspecting Tokyo.

One of the best distributors out there is Warner Home Video, and it seems that they put their best efforts into the older Genre releases. THEM, THE BLACK SCORPION, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS… all received treatments that are usually reserved for brand new blockbuster releases, or at least high-dollar collector’s editions. For this disc, they used as absolutely beautiful print of the film, cleaned it up nicely, subtitled it (always important to a slightly deaf Unimonster…) and packaged it nicely… even if in one of their annoying Snap cases.

WHV also loaded this disc down with special features, ones that will be of great interest to Harryhausen’s dedicated cadre of fans. The meat of the Special Feature section is contained in two documentaries, both featuring Harryhausen himself.

The first, THE RHEDOSAURUS AND THE ROLLER-COASTER: THE MAKING OF THE BEAST, is Harryhausen simply describing what went into the making of the film, primarily of course from his perspective. It’s a fascinating look at the process of creating a 1950’s B-Movie, from someone who was instrumental in the genre. While there is none of the behind-the-scene footage you’d see in a documentary of this type done today, his words aptly illustrate the goings-on.

The second, and far more heartwarming, of the documentaries is AN UNFATHOMABLE FRIENDSHIP: RAY HARRYHAUSEN AND RAY BRADBURY. This is just an open conversation between two life-long friends, who were lucky enough to do something they loved for a living. Taped in front of a gathering of fans and friends at the Warner Bros. lot, they discuss not only the film that gave them both their first real break, but the friendship that had begun years before that, and continues to this day.
The only other Special Feature is a Theatrical Trailer gallery, but it’s interesting, consisting of trailers for four of Harryhausen’s films, including BEAST… Though I’m sure it’s main purpose is to sell other Harryhausen films in WHV’s DVD catalog, it’s nonetheless entertaining.

I won’t lie to you; I’m a huge Harryhausen fan, and it would be difficult for me to be objective about this disc even if it weren’t this well done. Fortunately, that isn’t an issue… it is a superb DVD release, and I feel no guilt in saying that all “giant monster” fans, as well as anyone who considers themselves fans of Ray Harryhausen, should own this one. The list price is $19.95, damn reasonable for what you get, though I’ve seen it cheaper. I’d have paid that for the two documentaries on the disc or for the movie alone, without Special Features.

As always, it comes down to how big a fan of this genre of Horror or Science-Fiction you are, and how much you want a particular film. Speaking personally, Giant Dinosaurs, Insects and Reptiles are just about as good as it gets, and Ray Harryhausen’s creations rule that roost. The only way I can imagine it being better is to be watching it under the stars, girlfriend beside me, through the windshield of a ’54 Buick… maybe one with Nash seats.




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DVD Review: THE SCREAMING DEAD

Title: THE SCREAMING DEAD

Year of Release—Film: 2004

Year of Release—DVD: 2004

DVD Label: Shock-o-Rama Cinema


Shock-O-Rama Cinema has a certain reputation in Horror circles, and not an altogether bad one. Though they are an admittedly low-grade producer and distributor of Horror Films, churning out, for the most part, no-budget, shot-on-video gorefests, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good Horrors. Monogram was able to produce some quality films in the 1940’s, just as Amicus was in the ‘70’s and New Line in the ‘80’s. Every era has it’s low-budget studio turning out reel after reel, or in this case disc after disc, of good, solid, horror entertainment. There may not be an Oscar winner in the bunch, but they deliver what’s promised. Though SCREAMING DEAD may not win any awards, it’s a good little Horror Film, one that delivers what it promises.

A famous photographer rents an old haunted building for a photo-shoot, and arrives with several gorgeous models, including the “star” of the film, Misty Mundae; a cute young assistant; (Heidi Kristoffer, in a very good performance…) and the representative of the property-owner in tow. The photographer proceeds to subject his models to various staged “torture” situations for his photographs. This activity awakens the hostile, sadistic spirit of a man named Rossiter, who enacts in fact what the photographer staged for fantasy. Rossiter, well-played by Kevin Shinnick, (who, in the interests of full disclosure, is an acquaintance of this reviewer…) proceeds to hack his way through most of the cast in varied and imaginative ways.
In effect a remake of the 1965 Italian film THE CRIMSON EXECUTIONER ~aka~ BLOODY PIT OF HORROR, SCREAMING DEAD benefits from having a coherent script and, for the most part, decent acting… two factors the original lacked. Let’s be honest… this movie’s not likely to win any awards. But it does what I require of any movie—it entertains me.

Shock-O-Rama is one of those companies that always seem to deliver value for the Horror-fan’s dollar. They turn out a reliable, quality product, and this disc is no different. The print is crisp and clean, and the audio is sharp. There are no subtitles, however, which would be a plus. Overall, though, THE SCREAMING DEAD is a very well done project from Shock-O-Rama.

For what is essentially a bargain-rate movie from a low-budget distributor, this is a surprisingly well-planned and executed disc. There are several special features, including a making-of featurette, as well as an interview segment with the director, Brett Piper, and several of the cast. There’s a Documentary on Misty Mundae, Shock-o-Rama’s Queen of Screams, and additional photo galleries and such. It’s really not a bad package for such a low-budget effort.

As I said, this movie wasn’t in the Oscar hunt, and deservedly so. Still, for less than $20, you can have a good, thoroughly enjoyable Gorefest to add to your collection. It may not be your first choice when video shopping… but don’t be too quick to pass it by.




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Junkyardfilms.com’s Moldy Oldie Movie of the Month!: BLOOD BEACH

"Just went you thought it was safe to go back in the water...you can't get to it!"

The 1970’s and ‘80's were the big-time for sea-creatures threatening humans. First, there was "Jaws.” Following in rapid succession were "Orca", "Tentacles,” then "Piranha,” then "Piranha-Piranha". And then, there's Blood Beach.

The film opens with an old lady taking an early morning walk on a California beach with her cute little dog. Suddenly, something below the sand grabs her foot and, although she struggles mightily, she dragged down into the sand. A neighbor, Harry (David Huffman) who's swimming to his job in the Harbor Patrol, hears her cries for help but is too late to save her. Distraught, he calls the police but they don't believe his strange story.

Enter the old lady's daughter, Catherine (Marianna Hill) who, as it turns out, is Harry's ex-fiancée. Even though Harry has a significant other, sparks fly and they talk... and talk... and talk. Meanwhile, the police, headed up by Captain Pearson (John Saxon) and Sgt. Royko (Burt Young), investigate the continuing disappearances of beach-goers.

Catherine moves into her mother's house next door to Harry's house. Despite being told by a homeless bag-lady that her mother was "raped and killed" and the disappearance is a police conspiracy, she wiles away her time aimlessly searching for her mother and drawing bad art with Magic Markers. Meanwhile, the girlfriend of Harry's best friend Tod (Charles Rowe Rook), despite hearing news of the disappearances and being warned by Tod to stay off the beach, decides one night to investigate a wounded seagull. Once under the boardwalk, she's attacked by a rapist. Fighting the would-be rapist off, she crawls slowly away as the man crawls on his stomach toward her. But, just as he's about to grab her, his 'privates' are bitten off by whatever is under the sand!

Harry's girlfriend, Marie, who is a stewardess, returns from an over-seas trip. But, before she enters their house, her hat flies off onto the beach. When Marie tries to retrieve it, the sand-creature grabs her legs, dragging her into the sand, leaving no mark. Meanwhile, Harry, thinking he's been stood up by his girlfriend, walks next door to visit Catherine. It's not until the next morning, spying her hat on the beach, Harry realizes Marie has become the creature's latest victim. He treats this revelation in a "out of sight, out of mind" manner. (You'd think he could at least wait for the dead girlfriend to be cold in her grave before pursuing Catherine!)

Meanwhile, the police are stymied. Where are these people disappearing to without leaving a clue? And, why did they bother to ask the pipe-puffing Dr. Dimitrios, the coroner (Stefan Gierasch)!?! This man speaks at glacial rate! And, he's boring!

Tod, while trying to talk the homeless bag lady into leaving the beach, is the next victim. Harry and Catherine discuss this at length. Suddenly, Catharine remembers playing in the basement of a burned-out, abandoned beach hotel on the boardwalk. Exploring the basement, she discovers the partial remains of the missing people. The police decided to blow up the hotel. Dr. Dimitrios, speaking in the same monotone voice, explains painfully slowly why this is a bad idea. What if the explosion causes the creature to multiply...like cutting an earthworm in half? "Poppycock" says Captain Pearson! "We'll blow that sucker back to wherever it came from!” Of course, they plan the explosion after dark. And, sure enough, little bits of the monster falls down like snow in a snow-globe. The next morning, on the crowded beach, a mother is asking her little son if he'd like a sandwich. Turning around, she discovers he's gone! And, the beach becomes pock-marked with sand holes! The end. (Oh, Noooo! Please don't even leave an opening for a sequel!)

This so-called horror movie was totally bloodless! All the deaths were identical and after you see the first victim sucked to their death, the rest are yawningly predictable. The acting felt phoned in and the script was formulaic and plodding. The monster, revealed to be a giant sea cucumber, is only seen one time near the end of the movie. This movie did the one unforgivable thing a movie can do...IT BORED ME! IMO this is one "forgotten" movie that can stay forgotten! In a world of great sea-monster movies like "Jaws,” this remains the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish of horror movies!

Enjoy! Or not!

MSTJunkie




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