This is Chris. He’s the Frankenstein Monster to my Count Dracula (or if you prefer your references more obscure, Hjalmar Poelzig to my Vitus Werdegast), Godzilla to my King Kong, Jason to my Freddy, and so on.
He was, in fact, Sweeney Todd to my Judge Turpin in our local community theater’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical. He was also Dwight Frye to my Tod Browning when, also ages ago, he played the role of Renfield in my original musical version of Dracula.
In the still you see here, he’s portraying a “man-with-no-name” role in “Doorknob,” the third and craziest segment of The Dark Factor, Episode II–one of the anthology horror films we made as teenagers. In it, he was required to scrape wood putty “skin” from his face, pull a bag of Cheese Puffs out of his stomach, and get barfed on by a “naked” gal who turns into a guy (without explanation). Obviously, Chris is devoted to horror movies (Not to mention a Kinski-like intensity to acting). We met in 1979, and the first thing we bonded over as elementary school students (I was in sixth grade, he in fifth) was our love of horror films. We continue to talk about them endlessly to this day.
If you’re as hardcore a fan as Chris is, you may even have an entire room in your house dedicated to the appreciation of movie fright fare (just like Ghouly Irv!). As you can see from this collage, his Den of Dread is festooned with much a chiller aficionado would like to possess. Plus the obligatory massive library of horror DVDs and Blu-rays. As Halloween draws near, the fright film fanatic can’t help but get all warm and fuzzy over the thought of cuddling (or is that curdling) up with a classic chiller. Just which one(s) to celebrate, of course, necessitates renewed conversations, arguments, and list-making.
So, in the spirit of the season, I figured I’d share the type of chat that’s likely taking place all around the world between longtime fright fan friends. Here we go:
George: Remember how we first discovered our mutual love of horror films?
Chris: Of course I do! Waiting for the school bus in the afternoon. One of us was reading a horror movie book (Probably something by Thomas G. Aylesworth. I still have my battered and yellowing copy of Movie Monsters!). The other noticed and we struck up a conversation, actually more of a quiz with questions flying back and forth along the lines of “Who played Jonathan Harker in Horror of Dracula?” That stands out because I remember the still of John Van Eyssen lying in a coffin. I think I knew other kids who watched horror movies on TV, but I was amazed that there was another one who loved them like I did and actually wanted to know more about them. Of course making them would have been beyond my wildest dreams at that point. Actually, the first time you piqued my interest was when my fifth grade class was ushered into another room to watch your staging of Frankenstein. I sat on the stage left side in one of the first rows. I think you as the monster wore a green cardigan sweater and went on a rampage by flipping over a desk. At least you were more aggressive in your portrayal of the Creature than Lon Chaney Jr. was in Tales of Tomorrow!
Can you recall when watching a horror movie first felt transgressive for you—like you were seeing something you weren’t supposed to see? Like you were getting away with something by watching, or seeing a world that was more frightening than you’d imagined? Although my parents were sitting there with me I remember watching The Shining when it debuted on premium cable and feeling a little nervous about the adultness of it all. I recall my mom giving me a brief lecture before she let me see the film about how I was never to use the bad words I would hear. They also made me turn away from the screen during the “lady in the bathtub” scene, but I was able to sneak a peek at it when it was replayed later and they weren’t around. They told me they were letting me see the film because they knew I would love it and I’m grateful because it showed me that they wouldn’t let a few swear words get in the way of me discovering something awesome!
Has this feeling ever occurred again for you as an adult horror film fan? Nothing quite like that. I’m pretty jaded these days. I feel a little guilty if I watch a rape/revenge flick like Thriller: A Cruel Picture or I Spit on Your Grave. The volume goes way down on something like that.
Now for the silly question. If you had to, absolutely had to choose, without thinking about it for more than a second: Name your favorite horror movie. Can I at least choose two? Then I can pick my most beloved film and my most frightening film. I love The Bride of Frankenstein most because it’s comforting like an old friend or Thanksgiving dinner. It doesn’t scare me like a true horror film should so my other choice is The Exorcist, which I still won’t watch alone at night.
Do you have a favorite era of horror? A favorite type of fright film (ie vampire, zombie, mad slasher, etc.)? Favorite era: must choose two again for similar reasons. I love the classic Universal series best of all, but in recent years have developed an affection for Euro-horror (mostly Italian or Spanish) from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. I guess that sounds awfully broad, but I watch tons of films by Bava, Argento, Fulci, Paul Naschy, and Amando de Ossorio these days.
Quickly (and with a very short explanation if you believe it necessary): Name the “best”…
Dracula movie? Nosferatu (1922): Ninety (!) years later it still has several chilling moments. There’s nothing sexy about Graf Orlock! Frankenstein film? The Bride of Frankenstein: I am soooooo close to going with Frankenstein (1931); it came first and we see Karloff as the monster for the first time, but with Bride James Whale really shows off his skill as a filmmaker and the cinematography is gorgeous. Plus Ernest Thesiger’s Pretorius is a fantastic addition to the saga. Werewolf picture? The Wolf Man (1941): Chaney Jr. was not the incredible talent that his father was, but he’s iconic here for sure! A pure Hollywood creation from the mind of Curt Siodmak. How many people think “Even a man who is pure in heart…” comes from ancient folklore? Zombie opus? Zombie (1979): aka Zombie 2, aka Zombie Flesh Eaters. I suppose it’s sacrilege not to choose a Romero film, but Lucio Fulci’s film is not satire or social commentary. It’s all horror movie. It boasts a great score from Fabio Frizzi, horrifying gore set pieces (eye trauma, anyone?), and let’s face it, better looking zombies than the blue-faced ghouls of Dawn of the Dead. Sorry Tom Savini, but I give Gianetto De Rossi a slight edge here.
Ghost/haunted house flick? The Haunting (1963): This one oozes creepy atmosphere, but you really never see a ghost. You hear them and it’s plenty. Richard Johnson is great in this film as the head of a paranormal research team. Sixteen years later he pops up in Fulci’s Zombie. That’s a varied genre career right there. Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and West Side Story’s Russ Tamblyn are all good as well, but the real star is director Robert Wise who creates horror and suspense by using incredible restraint.
Gore film? The Beyond: Fulci again. De Rossi again. There have been bloodier films (Dead Alive) and better practical effects (Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing and almost anything by Tom Savini), but there’s something about the way Fulci shot his gore sequences that stands out. He’s right in your face and lets you see the works even if they’re not entirely convincing. There’s a scene here where a poor victim has his fake looking face devoured by fake looking spiders. It’s mesmerizing. Nobody shot decay, rot, and gore like Fulci. Horror comedy? Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: Even if Bud and Lou don’t appeal to you there’s something about this film that makes it a fitting final film for Universal’s classic monsters. Frankenstein’s Monster may be the title creature, but we also get Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi as Dracula in his final appearance in a Universal film. Even the Invisible Man makes a cameo voiced by Vincent Price.
Black-and-white horror movie? The Haunting again. I chose this one because even though this film is brilliant in so many categories, if it were shot in color that would weaken its impact so much that it probably wouldn’t work at all. Need proof? The CGI -laden color remake. Second and third place go to The Bride of Frankenstein and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Color horror film? Black Sabbath: Mario Bava began his career as a cinematographer and as a director he truly had an eye for color. He must have had an eye for film because his Black Sunday is one of the most impressive black and white horror films I’ve ever seen. I went with this 1963 anthology mostly for the segment “The Wurdalak” which stars Boris Karloff (who also hosts the film) as a vampire. Eerie hues of green and red create an unearthly nightmare quality not effectively produced by another filmmaker until Dario Argento directed Suspiria in 1977.
Foreign language fright flick? Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979): This is a tough one for me, being such a fan of European horror films. You see, the critical word here is language, implying not just that the film is foreign made, but that the principal tongue spoken by the actors is something other than English. Most of the genre films made in Europe in the 60’s -80’s were made with international casts. In one movie there could be an actor like Christopher Lee speaking his native tongue, obviously English, with another like Klaus Kinski speaking German, and Jean Sorel speaking French. Possibly they may all speak a common language that would usually be English, but some actors would be so thickly accented they would need to be dubbed later anyway. Therefore in most cases the film was shot MOS, or without sound. This also allowed filmmakers to be less concerned with noise on the set. In any case, my usual rule of insisting on the subtitled version of the film over the dubbed goes out the window with these films. Both the Italian and English language versions of a film like Bava’s The Whip and the Body, for example, are dubbed by different actors so even though Christopher Lee is one of the stars you don’t hear his impressive voice in either one. I might have picked Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu in this category anyway because it’s such a haunting and beautiful film, probably one of the greatest remakes of all time. It also happens to fit here very well, because it exists in a version shot and released in German with English subtitles. Ironically, in an unusual move, Herzog simultaneously filmed Nosferatu with the exact same cast performing in English–creating essentially two different films. Both are stunning. Silent horror film? Nosferatu (1922): Here it is again! F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece still holds up today. Max Schreck as Count Orlock i.e., Dracula, truly is an otherworldly presence. This is a film that just might be getting more effective as it ages. Watching the original Nosferatu is like peering into a window to another time. Almost any very old film does, but this one really puts you there and it’s a very unsettling place to visit. My God, I would love to have a clock on my wall like the one Orlock has in his castle.
Who’s your favorite “Scream Queen”? Fay Wray. Instantly you think of King Kong, but Wray appeared in a number of memorable horror classics in the early thirties. You can find her in The Most Dangerous Game, Doctor X, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, and The Vampire Bat. Could she scream? Like nobody else. What’s more–she’s a knockout!
As you know, I just re-watched the 1982 splat-fest Pieces (released in that marvelous two-disc Special Edition) and loved it all over again, despite the fact that it’s considered an awfully “bad” film by generic standards. There is something totally disreputable about it that makes it appealing. Its un-slickness makes the gore and gratuitous nudity more potent to me. The ending makes less than zero “sense,” but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Pieces is for hardcore horror fans only, I suspect. Can you name another “bad” movie of the genre that you unapologetically love? (Leaving out the entire Ed Wood filmography, which is a fan’s easiest default answer)
Oh, man! Just one? I think I enjoy bad movies more than good ones sometimes. Today the wind is blowing towards Burial Ground aka The Nights of Terror, director Andrea Bianchi’s moronic, but sick zombie romp. Cheap, badly directed, horribly acted, crammed with ridiculously inept gore effects, and containing some of the most atrocious dubbing ever, this turkey is notorious for one jaw-dropping moment that I simply cannot spoil here. Let’s just say it involves the resolution to an unhealthy relationship between a mother and her young son (who is actually played by an adult dwarf for reasons that become all too clear at the film’s climax). Tasteless and incompetent filmmaking that somehow transcends it’s awfulness to cross over into sublime cinematic bliss!
What subgenre/era of horror movies have you wrongfully ignored and want to catch up with? I think I’ve given them all a chance. The only subgenre not to really take root with me is Asian horror. I don’t hate the J-horror and the like, but they just don’t grab me and I have tried to surrender to it. I do consider myself a classic kaiju fan so Godzilla will always have a place in my heart, but with the exception of Takashi Miike’s disturbing Audition, the more recent Far Eastern horror doesn’t move me much.
I’m going to name a couple of our childhood-era video rental destinations. If you have a horror-related memory of any kind, do share:
Captain Video? Can we share our memories of this place with the world without the FBI coming after us? Of course, I immediately think of our epic dubbing sessions when we just couldn’t wait to get the “Video Pal” back to the store. One time we asked my mom to rent it out for us so they wouldn’t know we were copying tapes (Like they cared. They rented out dubbed tapes, remember?). She told them it was for her son. They asked, “Do you need dubbing cables?” Gamely covering for us she answered, “Oh no. He just wants this to watch movies up in his room.” I think they really raised their eyebrows at that!
They also had a good horror section with the coffins and cobwebs, etc.
The Other Video? I just remember that we tried to get them to carry The Dark Factor. (We were unsuccessful)
Rite Aid? This was the first place where I ever rented (and purchased) videos. I remember the plexiglass-framed pages of video covers that you could flip through. I also remember that you had to request the movie using a number. You’d say, “Do you have 1645378?” Then the clerk would mosey over to the tapes, look them over and return saying, “It’s out.” Then you’d say, “Okay, how about 1164086?” And so on… (My own recollection is that I had the number for Dawn of the Dead practically memorized. Sadly I have now forgotten it. I would love to now have one of those massive plastic pages in my home.)
The best Stephen King adaptation? The worst? The Shining is the best. This film really divides horror fans. Folks criticize the performances as being over-the-top and I love them. Anyone who says Nicholson’s madness is hammy and unbelievable has never seen someone really lose it. (That statement, of course, begs a follow-up question I may have to ask him off-the-record)
Others say the film changed King’s book too much. Having read the book, I call the changes improvements. The hedge animals were the least scary aspect of the novel and would have been silly in the film. SPOILER ALERT: It’s much more frightening that the Overlook still stands rather than blowing up as in the novel. The evil will always be there just as it always has.
There are so many bad ones. Most are just forgettable. I think I remember the George Romero directed The Dark Half being pretty lame, but the book was, too.
As far as contemporary horror movies go, what’s the best one you’ve seen recently? The Innkeepers. I started following Ti West after being taken with House of the Devil. I haven’t seen his other films, Cabin Fever 2 or The Roost and he also directs a segment of the found footage anthology, V/H/S that I plan to check out soon. West excels at slow burn horror. He’s becoming synonymous with it. The Innkeepers is a fine low key ghost story that gets you involved with real and likable characters, building to a harrowing final ten minutes. That seems to be Ti West’s M.O.
What’s your indispensable book about horror movies? It’s Alive! The Classic Cinema Saga of Frankenstein by my favorite film historian, Greg Mank. This book is pretty specific as it is almost entirely about Universal’s cycle of Frankenstein films from James Whale’s 1931 classic to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I think it’s OOP, too. I have the first edition (copyright 1981) that I’ve had since I was a kid. It is such a definitive account of the production of these films that I still refer to it on a regular basis. Plus, my five-year-old daughter loves the great stills.
And what recent book about horror flicks is worthwhile? Monsters in the Movies by John Landis. I almost didn’t pick this up because it’s mostly pictures and little text, but I’m glad I did. It’s a beautiful coffee table book crammed with countless stills, most of which are not the ones you see in every other book. The text that is there is warm and affectionate, conveying director Landis’ pedigree that he’s a true “monster kid” like me.
What’s that horror-related zine you told me about some time ago? Not sure which one you mean. Maybe Little Shoppe of Horrors, which is published by this guy, Richard Klemensen, out of his basement or garage, but is slick and well written by many reputable contributors and calls itself “The Journal of Classic British Horror Films.” It’s mostly about Hammer and Amicus and contains tons of information and interviews with real classic British alumni.
What horror movie that’s OOP (or was never available) do you most want to see released? I dunno anymore. Unless it’s a “lost” film like London After Midnight almost anything can be seen somehow. I don’t know if Movies Unlimited is the best place to mention this, but you can find a bootleg of almost anything on eBay. (It isn’t, but what the hell. We’ve had plenty of people mention it on our somewhat disturbingly popular post about Song of the South) Usually it’s a DVD transfer of an old VHS tape that looks terrible, but at least it’s there to be seen, and if no one is interested in releasing a legitimate version of the film, then…? The one I got of Screams of a Winter Night is a good example. Someone must own the rights, but must not feel that it is worth distributing. It leaves a fan with very little choice. You probably read that cool article in Rue Morgue #124 (The Entity on the cover) about lost horror films. I’d love to see some of those.
Anyway, I’m starting to get the feeling that it ain’t gonna happen, but I would love to see London After Midnight. I’m sure it’ll be disappointing in the end, but the notion has always been tantalizing.
Indeed. Happy Halloween to horror film fans everywhere! If you want my picks, I refer you to A Horror Movie Gourmand’s Menu. Now join our chilling conversation in the comments. Leave the lights on, this might get scary.