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An Introduction to Classic Horror

From silent to contemporary to experimental retrograde, it’s impractical to refute how beautiful black and white film and photography stands with its dreamlike atmosphere and tone. This is glamour cinematography. Take all the gradations of gray in between the beiges, silver, and charcoal and mask those rich images with hair-raising background music and you’re presented with a truly haunting and suspenseful piece that will keep you at the edge of your seats. This is why Hitchcock is one of the truly great masters of horror. The writing is also consistent throughout his films and filmmakers alike. Attention spans have since depleted and we are left with cheap jump scares and reduced originality.

Many of our most iconic monochromatic monsters may not have aged well but a few that still hold up are Carnival of Souls, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Night of the Living Dead. This collection may be repetitive for horror fans like myself but these are the more essential and sophisticated materials.

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI

This selection is known for its oblique and confined interiors, stylized trees and knife-like leaves. The viewers are given so many twists and turns and their perspective is distorted with climbing staircases, titled walls, and jagged geometric figures. The film follows a madman who hypnotizes a somnambulist to carry out his murders but there are no real visually striking images of death nor blood. The inspiration for the script is plucked right out of the experiences from writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz with the a military drug during WW1. There’s rich Nazi history involved with the film’s staff and crew. Conrad Veidt, Cesare, was notorious for his range in psychologically difficult roles. The Man Who Laughs is another notable performance. Major Strasser in Casablanca being my personal favorite. Werner Krass, Dr. Caligari, became a controversial figure due to his collaborations with Nazis. The damsel in distress, Lil Dagover, was Hitler’s favorite actress. She spent an awful lot of time at his dinner parties.

ONIBABA

Arguably one of the most haunting Japanese survival films that is considered a horror film by many but some will argue that it’s merely a vortex of lust, greed, and betrayal. A wife and mother are struggling in a swamp set somewhere in the middle of war in 14th century Japan. Desperate, they murder Samurais and sell their belongings to a merchant. Oh, there’s also a witch living across the swamp. The mother ultimately suspects her daughter-in-law of deceit, and for being a skanky little ho. She terrorizes the young woman with a mask stolen from her most recent victim. The masks is impossible for her to remove and let’s just say their fate is fitting. This is some of the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen. Those images will penetrate and consume into the darkest uncharted confines of your imagination. It’s unique, well-written, and it’s complete with philosophical and spiritual ideas, respecting premodern Japan. Check out the Criterion Collection. Onibaba was initially refused a certificate in England by the BBFC in 1965, but resubmitted in 1968 where it was approved with an X classification with cuts.

BLACK SUNDAY

The ambience is eerie and gothic and the special effects are pretty gnarly for a black and white film. Black Sunday explores an unpleasant witch who is brutally, and I mean, fucking brutally, killed by a spiked mask that is battered into her face by a large hammer. The witch comes back from the grave with her servant and attempts to possess a beautiful descendant with a striking resemblance.  The seductive Barbara Steele was famous for her roles in gothic horror films and Mario Bava was a Master of Italian Horror, along with Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci. Bava was given very little to work with on this production but his grand style was all the plush needed with Steel’s mystical edge make this work. Word has it the actors were fitted for vampire fangs but they were never used.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE

A former child star (Bette Davis) and her sister (Joan Crawford) are forced into retirement after a crippling accident. Baby Jane has a lot of hatred for her sister Blanche because she was an actual movie star. Jane gets drunk and runs over Blanche with her car, giving her complete control of everything her sister does. This becomes progressively worse, and it’s, at times, exhausting to watch with a run time of two hours and fifteen minutes but these performances succeed in keeping a vigilant audience’s enthusiasm. Bette Davis is terrifying in this movie. She’s terrifying because she was that good. For me, there’s nothing more frightening than watching someone slowly unhinge. Her decaying child star persona morphed into this elderly, grotesque, raging lunatic drunkenly performing her old songs in her living room in her old outfits. Baby Jane is the real star here and Davis played the hell out of that character like all her previous roles but Crawford is also brilliant, right up until that final shot.

The wig Bette Davis wears throughout the film had been worn by Joan Crawford in previous MGM production. Neither of the actresses noticed because it had been re-groomed. During production, Bette Davis had a Coca-Cola machine installed on the set to anger Joan Crawford, whose late husband had been CEO of rival Pepsi-Cola and who herself was on the board of directors of that company. During the kicking scene, Bette Davis kicked Joan Crawford in the head, and the resulting wound required stitches. In retaliation, Crawford put weights in her pockets, causing a strain in Davis’ back. Director, Robert Aldrich, knew what he was doing. He knew that these women hated each other and were so competitive they would act out their aggression on screen, making it arguably two of the best performance in a horror film of all time. It’s cruel.

According to the book “Bette & Joan – The Divine Feud” by Shaun Considine, the two had a life long mutual hatred, and a jealous Joan Crawford actively campaigned against Bette Davis for winning Best Actress, and even told Anne Bancroft that if Anne won and was unable to accept the Award, Joan would be happy to accept it on her behalf.

NIGHT OF THE DEMON

Also known as Curse of the Demon. This is an interesting monster film about a doctor on his way to London to attend a paranormal event, conspiring to expose a cult leader. The doctor agrees to stay at the cult leaders estate still believing it’s all a fraud. Upon staying at this man’s estate strange events occur. This film was mentioned in the opening song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (“Science Fiction Double Feature”): “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, but passing them used lots of skill”. The demon appears at the end and it’s a little ridiculous but if you allow yourself to ignore the flawed effects it’s actually a well-made horror film. Directed by one of my favorites, Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man), did not want the demon shown at the end. He thought that it ruined the movie and refused to shoot the scene but the film’s producer, whom none of the cast and crew got along with, shot it himself. The Blu-Ray edition is filled with extra footage.

PSYCHO

Often mis-credited as the first slasher film, it’s notorious for those shrieking violins and the infamous shower scene. That scene is so popular in film culture, just about anyone is familiar with it. The film opens with Janet Leigh (Jamie-Lee Curtis’s mother) on the run after stealing from her employer. Leigh is killed within moments after we follow her path to the dilapidated hotel and we feel safe because she is the protagonist, or so we though. Hitchcock throws in side characters as a distraction and we’re entranced with Anthony Perkin’s charmingly sadistic Norman Bates. The dialogue Perkins was provided combined with his underestimated acting abilities nursed our belief that he was a tender and innocent man; tormented by his mother, who we never get a good glimpse of until the end. Hitchcock’s camera trickery and direction is flawless. This film stands as a blueprint for the slasher genre. Stay far away from the remake.

THE BAD SEED

A wide-range of the killer-kid horror sub-genre are easily accessible and well spoken for; Village of the Damned, Children of the Corn, The Brood, The Omen, Ringu, and Orphan are all decent selections but The Bad Seed remains the most shocking and chilling. The filmmakers didn’t have to rely on gore or practical effects to make this a shocking masterpiece. Audiences were never handed material with genetic evil until The Bad Seed. Patty McCormick delivers a heart-stopping performance, she was nominated for an Oscar, along with her character’s mother, played by the extraordinary Nancy Kelly. There are twists that you will never see coming and there are alternative endings along with the novel and the broadway hit. These alternate endings have the viewers asking questioning which method they would use had their own child committed these murders. It’s often a heavy debate topic in film classes around the globe.

Rhoda is a manipulative eight-year-old who has the grownups convinced that she’s a sweet, smother you in hugs and kisses little girl. She’s a straight-A student and can recite the Bible by heart but buried underneath all of that sweetness is a sadistic little monster who takes pleasure in killing animals, children, and anyone that gets into her way.

Dean Koontz’s Hideaway may have been inspired by this film. Koontz describes DNA and something missing in genetics. That’s what The Bad Seed provides. Rhoda is not a demon. She is not the ‘Daughter of Satan or any other ridiculous concept we have seen regurgitate on film. The Bad Seed explores the possibility that some of us are born bad. Natural born killers.

LES DIABOLIQUES

A wife and the husband’s mistress conspire to kill the devious head master but his body disappears and strange events take place driving the two women completely mad. The ending is grim and shocking with a twist you will never see coming. Les Diaboliques made it into Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments #49 slot. There is a remake starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani but it doesn’t compare to this masterpiece. The freaky thing about the film is that Véra Clouzot had a heart attack five years after the films release, somewhat mirroring her character who also had heart problems. When director Henri-Georges Clouzot bought the film rights to the original novel, he reportedly beat Alfred Hitchcock by only a matter of hours.

FREAKS

A malicious trapeze artist seduces and marries a dwarf for the sole intention of inheriting his money. She fucked with the wrong circus. The Siamese twins, legless boy, the pinhead girl, half woman/half man, bird girl, and the dude with no arms and no legs that can roll his own cigarettes take matters into their own hands. Her fate is one that would eventually be revised appropriately in American Horror Story’s Freak Show.

Director Tod Browning traveled with a circus and he used real performers in the film. His love for the carnival folk inspired him to put a spotlight on the genuine personalities and show just how ugly and corrupt the ‘normal’ people in our society really are. It was banned in several places and they made a few cuts, including the castration scene. This is a one of a kind, original horror masterpiece. Browning would never direct again.

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