In The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury's paean to his favorite holiday, a skeleton man in Victorian dress bemoans the ignorance of the callow youths who dress as witches, ghosts and gargoyles without knowing why. "Why are you, boy, wearing that Skull face?" he cries. "You don't know, do you? You just put on those faces and those old mothball clothes and jump out, but you don't really know, do you? What is Halloween? How did it start? Where? Why? What for? It's all there in that country from which no one returns. Will you dive into the dark ocean, boys? Will you fly in the dark sky?"
As Bradbury knew, there is so much more to Halloween and to horror than just surface detail. So if you're casting around for a frightener this October 31st, keep it in mind that just any old hack-and-slash horror movie won't do. There are themes of persona and celebration, nature, history and masquerade that must be taken into account. In classical imagery, death is oftentimes nothing more than a metaphor for change. Forget Jason and Freddy, with their gross hackings that spatter the movie screen in gore. Let us choose a horror where things may not be what they seem, where the subtext is greater than the context, and duality is the order of the day.
What makes Mark of the Vampire a perfect Halloween movie is the climactic revelation that its vampires are not real vampires at all, but actors helping to ensnare a murderer by means of an elaborate hoax. So we can enjoy Carol Borland's flapping about the manor in canvas batwings as a moment of pure theater, of sublime Halloween merriment. Likewise, Lon Chaney's hokey transformations in The Wolf Man may lack the pyrotechnic finesse of modern movie werewolves, but then again The Wolf Man isn't really about the physical nonsense of transforming human into lupine anatomy. It is about inner turmoil, repressed anger and lust; it is about a tormented man trying (and failing) to rise above something dark that lurks inside of him. The now-primitive techniques used in the transformation scenes actually increase the impact of this, by not distracting, and by consisting of a fairly obvious masquerade played out in Hollywood Gothic settings of gnarled trees, tendrils of fog -- perfect for the season. Val Lewton's The Cat People (1942) is even more blatantly about sexual repression. Like all of Lewton's elegant horror films, it piles on the suspense pretty heavily, but leaves the shock effects to your imagination.
Horror movies of the thirties and forties had real guts: they hinted at dark things that modern films, with their splashes of gore, only play at. If Brando bores you in the latest remake of H.G. Wells's Island of Doctor Moreau, try Charles Laughton playing the same part in Paramount's far more suggestive and savage 1932 Island of Lost Souls. In the 1934 version of The Black Cat (which owes nothing to Poe except its title and a pronounced unhealthy atmosphere), Bela Lugosi gets a rare chance to play the good guy; but as you might expect, Bela's "hero" has more than a hint of a dark side, ending the movie in Grand Guignol fashion by flaying Boris Karloff alive. These films have psychological resonance, even today: Two years ago I showed Lew Landers's fine 1936 Dracula's Daughter to my then-girlfriend, and our relationship was never the same. The film's themes of lesbianism -- in the context of vampiric activity as a disease that may or may not be curable -- offended her deeply; for us, it was the beginning of the end. Oddly enough, this hasn't soured the movie for me: quite the opposite. I know now that there are more kinds of death than just the physical, and Dracula's Daughter will forever be associated in my mind with the death of that relationship. Gives it kind of a special flavor in the solstice showings that lie ahead
Just as important as the subtext of these films is the sense of humor that many of them share. Ernest Thesiger's dialogue in The Bride of Frankenstein -- a film that single-handedly proves the point that comedy and horror are two sides of the same coin -- is caustic and gaudy and bitterly funny. It is Thesiger's Doctor Preatorius (a sort of demented old Queen) and the overtly comical female servant who set you up for the shivers that follow; without their presence, the film would be -- almost literally -- lifeless.
In the same vein, though to different effect, it is the lightness of touch that makes 1945's House of Frankenstein so enjoyable. House has nearly as much visual style as its classier predecessors, but is far too crowded to build any real suspense. Instead, the presence of so many monsters -- not just Frankenstein's creation, but Dracula, the Wolf Man, a new and even madder doctor (Karloff) and his hunchbacked assistant all vie for screen time -- gives the movie a kind of cobwebby festive atmosphere that makes it, above all others, a scream at Halloween parties.
All right: you're so thoroughly modern that you can't bear to look at a black and white movie. Your loss; still, there are a very few options left, if you know where to look for them. Roman Polanski's Dance of the Vampires (released here in the states as Fearless Vampire Killers, and available on video by that title) is another smashing comedy/horror movie that concentrates on subtle chills over clumsy shock. The presence of Sharon Tate adds a disturbing level of subtext to this, given her real-life fate, but the film is powerful enough on its own.
Likewise The Abominable Doctor Phibes, quite simply the best thing ever produced by American-International, perhaps not the cheapest studio of all time but damned near. Phibes gave Vincent Price his greatest role: a grieving Victorian organist who uses Grand Guignol techniques to take his revenge on a culture that has turned its back on the gothic tradition. Directed by Robert Fuest (ex of The Avengers) with a real sense of Art Deco flamboyance, Phibes takes sadism to new heights and gets away with it by virtue of good humor, a well defined sense of the ridiculous and sheer cunning. You've just got to like a horror movie that has the wit to use "Over the Rainbow" for its closing theme.
Which leads us, by way of a simple sidestep, to Dreamchild, one of several fine non-horror movies that are perfect for Halloween, because of the themes they explore. Here's Ian Holm, embodying our favorite Victorian genius mathematician child molester Lewis Carroll, the very Reverend Charles Dodgson, with every ounce of sympathy and sensitivity he can muster (which is a powerful amount). Here, too, is Coral Browne, Mrs. Vincent Price herself, coming to terms, after more than sixty years spent in denial, with the very real terrors present in Dodgson's version of her adventures, and with her memories of Dodgson himself. Jim Henson's Creature Shop built the fantasy creatures; they add a wonderfully Victorian note to this crystalline, gothic gem.
If you're feeling ambitious it's always fun to fill out the program with a short subject or two, just like the movie theaters used to do. Every comedy star in the known universe has attempted the horror/comedy at one time or another, and many of these are quite rich with pure Halloween Spirit. But my favorite is Laurel and Hardy's The Live Ghost. A rough sea-captain (Walter Long, who could take the on the toned and oiled musclemen of today with both hands tied behind his back and one foot in chains) shanghais Stan and Ollie to crew his haunted ship; before long, the boys become convinced (mistakenly) that they have killed one of their mates (Arthur Houseman, one of the all-time great screen drunks), only to be pursued around the ship by the man's "ghost" when the still very much alive Houseman gets doused with a misplaced can of whitewash.
The business of the Hollywood serial has always been one of action and thrills, not scares or psychological mask-wearing. In the silent days, quite a few hooded, caped figures prowled through shadowy hallways -- Columbia's Iron Claw being just one of many -- but with the advent of sound these mysterious wraiths (who were benevolent as often as not) dwindled in number, and it's hard to find a sound serial that's appropriate to our occasion. But there are a few. In The Crimson Ghost, I. Stanford Jolley plays a gangster who likes to dress up in a very cheesy (but somehow very cool) Death costume complete with skull face, bony hands and shroud. As a whole it is not a very good serial, but chapter three features a cliffhanger in a black room lit only by a skullfaced nightlight that nicely captures some Halloween spirit. Of course masked heroes were a staple of the serials, and the duality of some of these masked men makes them prime candidates for Halloween-stardom. Columbia produced two Batman serials during the '40s that are so terrible as to make for some good Halloween party laughs, and their 14-episode thriller based on Popular Publications pulp fiction character The Spider has some great moments of personality shifting and black capes swishing against the night air. But for unvarnished thrills, great flying scenes and the ultimate in wish fulfillment your best bet is The Adventures of Captain Marvel, in which scrawny Billy Batson (played by high-pitched Frank Coughlin Jr.) turns into super-powered Captain Marvel (western star Tom Tyler) just by hollering "Shazam!"
Go ahead! Whoop it up! Halloween comes only once a year, and these films (all of which are available on home video) will help you get into the Spirit!
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