Monday, 15 October 2012

The Chill List #2!: Classic Movie Monsters!

I've probably said this before, but I owe a lot to the Great Money Movie.

When I was a wee shaver cable TV brought channels from the metropolis of Bangor Maine to my family's wood paneled color TV.  One of those channels was the NBC Bangor affiliate and they carried The Great Money Movie, which showed a different movie every weekday at 5:00 PM.  Each week would have a theme, and one of their regular themes would be Classic Movie Monsters.

I'm talking about the stalwarts, like Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Mummy, and the Wolf-Man, but what the Great Money Movie did was to alternate their Movie Monster weeks between Universal Pictures and Hammer Film Productions.

For those who don't know such things Universal Pictures pretty much invented the monster-movie genre in the early 1930s thanks to the founding Laemmle family's love of Central European folklore. There had been horror films put out before, but American films had always skirted the supernatural, preferring the appearances of ghosts, vampires, and other things bumping in the night to be hoaxes organized by crooks.  That changed drastically with Universal's release of Dracula, with Bela Lugosi in the title role.

The character of Dracula was a living corpse that fed on the blood of the living, no hoax, no mask, no discovery in the end by the Scooby Gang that he was Mr. Haskins from the amusement park all along.

Now many consider Todd Browning's Dracula a classic, and while it is groundbreaking and historic, I just can't put it on my list as a personal favorite.  The camera-work is extremely static, even for an early sound feature, the acting ranges between very stiff and very "arch" as if they were all still doing the piece on stage.

I always got the feeling that Todd Browning lost interest in doing the film when his intended star Lon Chaney Sr. died.

I consider the James Whale directed productions Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein as my personal favorites of the Universal monster oeuvre. The films are visually striking, loaded with dark humor, and the subtext of the monster as victim instead of perpetrator.

The Wolf-Man is another favorite of mine, though it marks the beginning of the end of the Universal monster franchise. The films entered a spiral of diminishing returns with sequel after sequel, mash-ups, and eventually parody with Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, where Universal's top goofball comics met almost all of the studio's biggest monsters.

By the 1950s the classic monsters faded from Hollywood but got a new lease on un-life in the United Kingdom.  

Hammer Film Productions had enjoyed some success in Britain making spy thrillers, crime flicks, and broad comedies, but had come to define themselves with a line of horror films beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein.

The Curse of Frankenstein took the horror genre into a new direction. Compared to the Universal films it was relatively gory, and, in a rare move for a horror film, was presented in glorious Technicolor.

It also shifted attention away from Universal's monster-centric movies and aimed its attention squarely on Dr. Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing. Cushing's Frankenstein is a malignant force that's more dangerous than any creature he concocts in his lab. He's a total psychopath who will do anything and everything to pursue his interests in breaking the secrets of life and death.

The success of their Frankenstein led to a production of Dracula, starring my personal favorite vampire actor Christopher Lee. Lee brought a towering physical presence and aristocratic arrogance to the series that usually pitted him against Peter Cushing playing variations/generations of Dr. Van Helsing.

A sexual element entered Hammer's movies, with lot of well endowed women in period garb that accentuate their heaving bosoms. That element went from implied to pretty direct with The Vampire Lovers, starring the lovely Ingrid Pitt in mainstream cinema's first blatantly lesbian vampire. (Which was never included in the Great Money Movie line-up, but was caught on a pirated pay-tv channel in the 1980s.)

Now the decline in popularity of period settings led Hammer to try to "hip" up their movies in the 1970s with contemporary settings. The most obvious being the weird and wild Dracula AD 1972, where the count makes a meal out of some hippies and spends the movie mildly buzzed, to the completely bat-shit Satanic Rites of Dracula. Satanic Rites of Dracula is a guilty pleasure, not because it was well made, but because it was such a weird mash up. The movie merged the vampire horror movie with the, wait for it, spy thriller. The whole plot hinges on Dracula's wish to completely destroy humanity with bio-weapons so satanists, hippies, and decadent black magic dabblers would finally stop bringing him back from the grave.

Now this brings me to the point of this piece.

Classic movie monsters are best when you're first exposed to them as kids.  The Universal movies when you're around 8-10 years old, and the Hammer films when you're 10 to your teens. Because when you view them with the cynical eye of the modern adult you lose the giddy thrill of seeing monsters in action, preferring to dwell on the campy acting, the hokey dialogue, and the all too frequent plot and logic gaps.

It's a shame that a lot of kids aren't seeing these movies because they contain the message that the imagination should never be limited by the narrowing world-view of adult-hood which reduces monsters from the stuff of nightmares to mere CGI props in rip-offs of other movies.

So remember kiddies to follow this advice...
Feel free to talk about your favorite classic movie monsters and their movies in the comments.


  1. Blast Hardcheese16/10/12 10:54 am

    I guess it may not be a 'classic', but I always had a soft spot for John Carpenter's remake of The Thing. I had seen the original w/ James Arness, and thought it creepy but not truly scary. The remake really did a good job of amping up the paranoia and feeling of isolation.

    BTW, if you're a fan of the remake do a Google search for Peter Watts' short story "The Things". It is one of those great ideas that is so simple you wonder why it wasn't done before.

  2. The switch-over in the 1950s in the USA for scientific monsters rather than folklore ones worked out rather well I feel. We got The Thing, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Blob, and some other greats. Not saying I don't love trash like Frankenstein vs. The Wolfman, but I must also throw some love in the direction of It: The Terror From Beyond Space and its ilk.

  3. The science fiction-like monstersm like The Thing, et al, could be the subject of another post.

  4. Furious,

    What is your favorite horror available on Netflix streaming?

    Rainforest Giant

  5. Rainforest Giant- I don't know, I don't have Netflix. I'm too poor.

  6. As of right now you are doing nothing to validate my theory that more interesting people have more disposable income.

    You need to get cracking so that others who do not want to be corporate drones will not be discouraged.

    Rainforest Giant.