We take a look at the most iconic and important horror films from before the breakthrough year of 1968
Everything from vintage Universal, through to the more psychological chills of Val Lewton and the eerie threat of 50’s alien invasion, and then on to the lurid glories of Hammer!
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale expands marvellously upon his original adaptation of the Mary Shelley classic of promethean folly with a gothic black comedy that allows Boris Karloff’s more vengeful Monster to gain greater pathos and dignity with a desperate quest to find a mate. Sinister scheming comes courtesy of the wonderfully camp, yet wholly malevolent warlock, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), whilst poor Henry Frankenstein (an understandably stressed Colin Clive) gets put through the emotional wringer. Greater sets, a stronger, wittier screenplay, more action and violence, and a tremendous show-stopping finale involving the creation of Elsa Lanchester’s notorious electro-shocked Bride provide one of those all-too rare sequels that actually improve upon the original vision. Famous set-pieces include the capture of the Monster by those pitchfork-wielders of yore and his subsequent bystander-swatting escape from the chains of their village jail, and the profoundly moving chapter in which Karloff’s agonisingly misunderstood wretch finds his only hint of true happiness with the blind old hermit. The perfect combination of moral debate, gallows humour, monstrous wonder and destiny-locked tragedy in one lightning-struck work of genius.
The Wolf Man (1941)
We are in the evocative realm of misty moors, gypsy curses and Lon Chaney Jnr. sprouting tussocks of wiry yak-hair as Universal Pictures refine lycanthropic lore with their own brand of legendary superstition. Curt Siodmak’s tightly-wound and intriguingly psychological screenplay creates the now statutory laws for werewolfry – silver bullets, pentagrams, full moon frenzies – and George Waggner directs with a flair for the dreamlike and the melancholy, rather than the out-and-out bloodthirsty. With its oft-repeated Romany mantra and a lyrical, fairytale quality, the sad story of the prodigal son returning to his ancestral home in a make-believe Welsh hamlet set in stone the tragedy of many a cinematic wolf man to follow in his tracks. Too often sidelined by critics, Chaney is tremendous as the hangdog unfortunate with a newfound craving for fresh meat. His nocturnal prowlings add vigour to a character bound-over by destiny and, with able support from Claude Rains as his staunchly protective father and Evelyn Ankers as the woman who arouses another sort of beast in him, Waggner’s movie evolves the hoary old superstition from the hovels of witch-hunting Europe to the glittering fantasia of Tinseltown.
Cat People (1942)
RKO producer Val Lewton quietly broke taboos with his sublime and swooning tale of predatory sexuality as Simone Simon’s mysterious Eastern European girl, Irena, comes to New York with fiendishly feline tendencies and a jealous streak a mile wide. Stricken with a curse that will see her turn from alluring young woman to savage panther when physical love is consummated, she nevertheless becomes a ferocious femme fatale when her unsatisfied husband finds potential satisfaction elsewhere. This was very much Lewton’s retaliation at what he perceived as being the penny-dreadful absurdities coming out of the Universal stables. A definite variation upon the werewolf myth, with a deliciously female twist, and a deliberate rubbing of The Wolf Man’s fur the wrong way, he kept Simon’s monster hidden in the dark, with exceptional use of deceptive light and shadow-play and patented “false-scare” tactics, such as the infamous zoo-stalking scene. In strict Lewton tradition, we are never entirely sure whether this superstition is all in Irena’s mind or whether she truly does have claws and nine lives. Directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, Cat People is justifiably regarded as a masterpiece of the macabre, and shreds the nerves with a good couple of standout suspense sequences and a slinky, sensuous style that was far ahead of its time.
The Thing From Another World (1951)
All hell breaks loose on a research base at the North Pole when an eight-foot-tall space vegetable in the formidable shape of James Arness gets defrosted from a block of ice and decides the create a race of monsters from reluctantly donated human blood. Kenneth Tobey’s practical military man and Robert Cornthwaite’s highbrow scientist butt heads over how to handle a situation that is rapidly getting beyond their ability to keep a lid on. But the thorn-fingered visitor has no such philosophical conundrums. He just wants to drain these insignificant squabblers of their precious claret, and he has more tricks up his sleeve than they do. Classic scenes abound – from the discovery of the Thing’s saucer beneath the ice to the creature’s sudden appearance behind an opened door, and from the unsettling sight of its seedpods taking sustenance from blood to its savage attack amidst a raging conflagration. This was THE pivotal alien invader movie, and with its fantastic sets providing hiding places for a hundred potential shocks and Dimitri Tiomkin’s Theremin-laced score making the skin crawl, the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby production rattles along with jingoistic gusto and a determined, though hardly veiled anti-communist coda to “Keep watching the skies!”
Night of the Demon (1957)
Jacques Tourneur’s simply awesome adaptation of the classic M. R. James short story, Casting The Runes, is an accursed blend of myth, diabolism and modern-day scepticism turned viciously on its head. When Dana Andrews’ gruffly cynical psychologist refuses to take back his scientific debunking of Niall MacGinnis’ mystical practices, he incurs the sinister wrath of the outwardly affable warlock. Slyly passed a runic parchment that is his virtual death-warrant, Andrews’ stubborn Dr. Holden refuses to believe the increasingly satanic phenomenon that seems to surround him - until the point comes when he can no longer deny the ghastly prophecy of a vengeful demon that will seek him out and rip him to shreds. The strength of this magnificent tour de force lies in our knowledge that the demon is real and that the blasé Holden is taking horrendously cavalier risks. A suspenseful sequence in which he infiltrates the black magician’s country mansion becomes a tense knuckle-whitener of mounting unease, and the various demonic manifestations that seep through the narrative grow in intensity until an exciting climactic showdown. Wally Veevers created the glowering, brimstone-skinned proto Balrog that bookends the film, and although its physical appearance has frequently provoked the consternation of detractors who prefer the story to remain ambiguous, I feel it is a vital and, indeed, poetic element, as well as being one of the best evocations of a hellspawn demon that I have ever shuddered before.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1958)
Reversing the order of the same inspired double-whammy with which Universal unleashed their classic depictions of Dracula and Frankenstein, and with almost the same cultural impact, Hammer Films paved the way for their spectacularly vivid and dynamic Horror of Dracula with a lurid and more graphic adaptation of the classic Shelley story with the immortal duo of Peter Cushing as the obsessed and even murderous Frankenstein, and Christopher Lee as his stitched-up, mentally challenged Monster. Terence Fisher directs with a steady hand, but the two stars excel as the demonstrative medical fiend and the pitiful, but dangerous wretch he creates. Audiences recoiled in horror from the livid, crash-victim visage of Lee’s frock-coated creature, and the liberal splashing of the studio’s Kensington Gore as a rifle blast rips into his head caused near-hysteria. Together with Hazel Court’s ample charms, Hammer’s provocative style was scribbled in blood over a heaving bodice. Like its vampiric cousin, the film was a forerunner to a successfully wild and increasingly explicit series, but the original has a true sense of salaciously dark deeds being committed in flagrant defiance of both nature and scientific gain. Cushing made Frankenstein the true villain of the piece, and this led to the ever murkier grey area between light and dark, good and evil in many of Horror’s more sophisticated power-plays to come. As with James Whale’s original, the greatest shock comes with the first unveiling of the creature, but the film retains a strong sense of necromantic mischief throughout and marked a true turning point in audience acceptability.
Black Sunday aka The Mask of Satan (1960)
Commencing with a beautiful young woman being tied to a tree amidst a circle of flaming torches and a menacing robed mob, before being horribly branded and then having a spiked metal mask viciously banged onto her face by a looming, hooded Italian muscleman (and he’s one of the good guys) the great Mario Bava’s directorial debut packs a sadistic punch in its iconic prologue. Haunting, mist-enshrouded crypts and a hexed gothic castle then envelope us with a profound sense of the brooding and the uncanny as a couple of clumsy travellers stupidly awaken a witch’s corpse and contrive to instigate her terrible vengeance upon those whose ancestors vanquished her. With the unfeasibly wide eyes of sixties horror-starlet Barbara Steele peering through the gorgeously luminous black-and-white photography, and dreamy carriages plunging through fairytale sets in languid slow-motion, this bizarre witch/vampire hybrid oozes visual panache, with almost every shot a demented work of art. Whilst the English dubbing is often atrocious, it cannot mask a grimly determined and ruthless streak that taints every pervasively moody moment. Quite groundbreaking for its time, this was the European answer to such super-shockers as Psycho and Peeping Tom. Steele brought unusual sexuality to her two roles in the film, one good, one evil, whilst Bava pushed the limits of on-screen nastiness.
The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise’s astonishingly well-crafted psychological spook-fest slowly unhinges with dark torments and creeping insecurities as Richard Johnson’s assembled “guests” become witnesses to the lingering disturbances in the maligned and ghostly Hill House. Based upon Shirley Jackson’s novel and boasting terrific performances from Julie Harris as the fragile conduit for the agitated spirits of the place that Johnson’s Dr. Markway wants to study, and Claire Bloom as the initially goading lesbian who befriends her, Wise creates several stunning set-pieces amid a film that spirals, like its pivotal metal staircase, irrevocably towards a genuinely and appropriately haunting finale. Scenes of bedroom doors supernaturally bulging inward and infernal banging noises assailing the two trapped and terrified women have since become legendary, and they have lost none of their power to freeze the blood. Indeed, Sam Raimi paid homage to this with the first two Evil Dead pictures. But the film maintains the attitude of a character-study, first and foremost, which only makes the freakish phenomena all the more frightening.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
The king of the B-movie quickie Roger Corman hit a rich vein of gothic gold with his flamboyant series of sinister Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, but none was so creepily poetic or as extravagantly picturesque as this. Regular star Vincent Price eats up the screen as the vainglorious and viciously arrogant Prince Prospero, who holes himself up in his castle along with his loyal friends in order to escape the plague that is ravaging the land. But he hasn’t long to savour his depraved and corrupting ways of cruelty and torture, as the titular Masque that he holds for his equally decadent and twisted followers becomes a grotesque dance of death when the avenging spirit of the plague gains access to his fortress and claims all but the innocent with the scarlet hand of fate. Corman’s movie drips excess with a gore-soaked colour scheme, arch performances and wicked imagery. Buxom Hazel Court appears here, too, her impressive assets adding titillation to a startling hallucinatory sequence of ritual sacrifice, and a young Jane Asher evokes purity in the midst of nobly-dressed barbarity. But the grand finale and its colour-coded epitaph are the gaudy yet grim highlights of this tale of moral comeuppance. An opulent feast for the senses, and a powerful metaphor for the price of perversion.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
The mid-sixties was a ripe old time for Hammer, with a slew of classic back-to-back productions utilising many of the same sets, cast and crew. But the most distinguished and chilling of the bunch was this tale of Haitian voodoo relocated to sleepy Cornwall, and a horde of the undead shepherded by the ruthless local Squire Hamilton (John Carson) to work down in his tin-mines. Mystified by the strange deaths and apparent reawakening of the locals, visiting physician Andre Morell seeks to unearth and eradicate the evil goings-on beneath the demonic old mill. Celebrated for its marrow-freezing nightmare sequence in which the achingly beautiful Jacqueline Pearce rises from her grave, this was one of the first and most potent examples of what would become the zombie boom spearheaded by George Romero only a couple of years later. Romero would borrow liberally from this film in Night of the Living Dead with his alarming depiction of a zombified little girl returning to slay her own mother with a trowel. With the zombies no longer content to merely shuffle about as they had done in previous films, and to actually perpetrate murder – check out the sinister cackling of one sackcloth-garbed deadhead as he pitches a fresh kill down a slurry pit - the stage was set for one of the genre’s most enduring conflicts. Cleverly, the screenplay rewritten by Anthony Hinds and directed by John Gilling makes stabs at the social order, something else that Romero would pick up on, and would provide a sense of the exotic and the primal to our own home-grown horror productions.
Without these ideas-laden and brave boundary-pushers from yesteryear, the Horror Film would still be a tepid art-form struggling for recognition.
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