Saturday, November 1, 2008

Better in Black and White. Part 1

Last night (Halloween), my sister Peggy and I watched a show about what one network considered to be the 100 scariest movies ever made. The list was heavy on slasher films which I find more disgusting than scary. My friends and I grew up watching black and white classics on two of the Syracuse TV stations. Channel 3 had Monster Movie Matinee on Saturday afternoons and Channel 9 had Baron Daemon, a really hokey vampire, late Saturday night. My dad and I didn't agree about much, but we did watch Baron Daemon together - sometimes in enjoyment of the craft of a classic film and sometimes laughing at the camp of a "Godzilla Meets Mothra" type movie.

One of the beauties of the Internet is that we can all make our own lists. So here is the first half of my list of favorite black and white horror movies.

The Classics

Dracula - 1931. Yes, the effects are far the other side of primitive. No, we don't consider Lugosi a particularly handsome man today. But the story of Dracula created an archetype of horror film and fiction; while this movie doesn't follow Bram Stoker's novel too closely, it does tell the story simply and chillingly. To me, every color version since has seemed an unnecessary attempt to tart up a story of night terror. Doesn't every kid fear what might come at them in the dark? Favorite quote: "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make. "

Frankenstein - 1931. Oh, those atmospheric sets in that creepy castle laboratory (pronounced lah-BORE-ah-toree). The make-up and costuming on the monster were magnificent. What really makes this movie for me are two things. First, Boris Karloff's ability to communicate the pathos and terror of that monster from underneath all that makeup. Second, a theme that Mary Shelley wrote about in the early 19th century resonated even more clearly in the 20th: man taking to himself powers that should be left only to God. From that theme, how many mad scientists in monster movies have we had? Favorite quote: "It's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!"

The Mummy - 1932. It's Karloff again, as the immortal Im-Ho Tep (yeah, the Mummy). I found him particulary creepy because I could just imagine the odor of centuries drifting off him while he was pursuing the modern girl who was his reincarnated love. And his wrinkled skin - guy could have used a good moisturizer. Generations of American kids learned that you don't desecrate ancient tombs, so this movie has that going for it. Favorite quote: "Death... eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket. In the name of Amon-Ra the king of the gods."

The Invisible Man - 1933. To a kid in a strict home who went to a strict Catholic school, the thought of being invisible was most enticing. You could do ANYTHING and get away with it! Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Take that, Sister Anna! But I digress. As the Invisible Man, Claude Rains (mostly by voice alone) showed how that experience could drive a man insane. Favorite quote: "I meddled in things that man must leave alone."

King Kong - 1933. Poor Kong. Kidnapped from his home environment on Skull Island (No Greenpeace then!), hounded to death; as a kid, I rooted for him - not the humans. He was a tragic hero who never learned to avoid trashy bleached blondes. Favorite quote: "It was beauty killed the beast."

Bride of Frankenstein - 1935. Poor Elsa Lanchester. Worst hair day ever. Favorite quote: "Alone: bad. Friend: good! "

The Wolf Man - 1941. Just at the end of the classic horror movie era. Lon Chaney, Jr. touchingly portrayed the tragic Larry Talbot, unwilling werewolf, haunted by what he had become. Oooh, the terrors of that spooky forest. Favorite quote: "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."

The rest of the 1940's didn't see too much of this genre. The real horrors were happening in the war. But then, in the 1950's, people regained their tastes for monsters. Some critics have said it was a response to the atom bomb. Who knows? All I know is, the 50's gave us some real camp classics. But that's a story for my next blog.

- Maureen

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