Favorite Horror Movies of the 1920s–revisited

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I will be teaching a course this summer at the Wescoe School of Muhlenberg College on Literature and Film. I have used this post before, but I wanted to put it up again, and I plan to expand the treatment of my favorite horror films.

So, to begin . . .

I have been a fan of horror movies since I was a child. I grew up watching Universal movies from the 1930s and 1940s being shown on various themed TV shows with horror hosts. As an adult, my love for these films has not waned; in fact, it has grown and helped to feed my scholarly interest in film. I use these films in some of the classes I teach in college.

For this series, I will try to limit my choices of film to 2-4 representative examples.  Two films, in particular, stand out to me from the 1920s.  They both starred Lon Chaney Sr., the Man of a Thousand Faces, and were made by Universal Studios.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

The first film is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, (1923) based on the Victor Hugo novel, and it is an extraordinary piece of cinema that stands up today. It was a very expensive production at the time.  Estimates range in the $1,250,000 to $1,500,000 range.  Given the year, that is a huge sum of money. The movie accurately reflects Hugo’s examination of the capacity of human beings to be intensely cruel to each other and of the abuse of power by those in positions of authority.  Wallace Worsley directed the film, and Lon Chaney Sr. gave a magnificent performance as Quasimodo.  It is also important to remember that Mr. Chaney created all of his own makeups.  If all you know of this story is the Disney version, you need to see this production.  I would consider it one of the best and most important films ever made.

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(https://en.wikipedia.org)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) starring Lon Chaney Sr. is based on Gaston Leroux’s novel and was a huge success. Chaney played the deformed writer who falls in love with a singer and who becomes her kidnapper. This tale of horror and love has been redone numerous times, including the well known stage musical, but none of those productions have reached the sterling height of this extraordinary film.  As with the Hunchback, Chaney created this makeup, and his performance is sublime.  Again, if you have not seen this film,  I recommend it highly.

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Happy 50th Anniversary to Star Trek!

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This month is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek! Congratulations to extraordinary longevity and influence for a television show that ran 3 seasons beginning in September of 1966.  What had been seen initially as only an action-adventure space opera, the influence and importance of this series would grow slowly.

The series was scheduled to be canceled after only two seasons, but an onslaught of mail and calls from fans convinced the television executives to renew it for one more season, but it still was finished after a partial 3rd season. This run of circumstances ordinarily would have been the end of most shows, but something was happening.

Star Trek was in many ways a response to the turmoil of the 1960s, but it was also a vision that transcended that particularly chaotic era. Gene Roddenberry, the creator, of the series, imbued it with a sense of optimism and humanism that suggested it was possible for humanity to confront and overcome its enormous problems. It was the first series to create a multi-cultural, indeed multi-planetary, crew.  In many of its episodes it dealt with issues that were then, and still are, current and facing humanity; among these themes: racism, war, and the spread of weapons in various cultures.

After a short period of dormancy, Star Trek went into syndication and soon would spin off 5 other series, and a 6th is coming out soon. Additionally, many feature movies have been made, including the most recent from this year Star Trek Beyond.

I am a proud Trekkie, especially favoring the original series. The humanism and optimism of the show has resonated with me, and I find the writing especially to be at the top level of television science-fiction shows, right along with The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. I hope that the messages of  this show continue to inspire people for many years to come.

“Live Long and Prosper!”

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The Sunshine Blogger Award!

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Thank you to Spearfruit at https://spearfruit.com for nominating me for this award! I am always happy to receive recognition from other bloggers, and this is a wonderful blog. Please be sure to visit.

The Rules for the award:

1.Thank the person that nominated you.

2.Answer the 11 questions from your nominator.

3.Nominate and notify 11 bloggers.

4.Give them 11 questions to answer.

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My answers for the questions from my nominator:

1.) What is your best childhood memory?

It would definitely be having a holiday dinner at my Aunt Judy’s house with all the family and friends there.

2.) If you could learn a language, which one would it be?

Irish–which is a language I am struggling to learn!

3.) If you could only keep five possessions, what would they be?

A photo of my wife and I; a volume of the complete works of Shakespeare; my writing journal; a pen my parents gave me as a graduation gift from college; and the cast iron frying pan that had been my mother’s.

4.) Who do you most admire in life?

Since I am uncertain if this means a person living or in death, I will go with J.F.K.

5.) Scuba Diving or Sky Diving?

This one is easy–I hate flying and love the water, so scuba diving!

6.) Do you have an embarrassing moment you have never told anyone else, if so what is it?

No, I don’t.

7.) What age do you feel right now and why?

That is a very good question–I am 60, but I feel like I am in my late 40s. Except for some aches and pains, I can still do more work now than I did in my 30s.

8.) If you could live in a movie or TV show, what one would it be?

The original Star Trek.

9.) If you could see one person in the world the last minute of your life, who would it be and why?

My wife. The answer is love.

10.) Comedy or Drama?

Drama.

11.) If you could speak to everyone in the world at the same time, what would you say?

Try to recognize the value of all people, try to understand the need for acceptance of diversity in all its variations, and work for human justice.

My Nominees:

Tricia at Never Less Than Everything at https://neverlessthan.com

Karen at Midnight in the Garden https://karendowdall.com

Jennie at A Teacher’s Reflections https://jenniefitzkee.com

Cindy at https://cindyknoke.com/

Tony Burgess at The Tony Burgess Blog https://tonyburgess1969.net

Laine at From Midnight to Dawnlight https://frommidnighttodawnlight.com/

Keene Short at Pens and Pencils https://jkeeneshort.wordpress.com/

Josh Gross at The Jaguar and its Allies https://thejaguarandallies.com

Tadhg  at Ask A Teenage Aspie https://askateenageaspie.wordpress.com

Marc at Marc Alexander Valle https://mavtheauthor.wordpress.com

Send Sunshine at https://sendsunshine.wordpress.com

My Questions For My Nominees:

1.) If you could visit any country that you have never been to, where would you go?

2.) What is your favorite book?

3.) Coffee or tea?

4.) What is your favorite meal of the day?

5.) What do you think is the most pressing issue of the day?

6.) Are you a day or night person?

7.) What is your favorite snack?

8.) What is the time period for which you have the most interest?

9.) Movie or live theater?

10.) What is your favorite season?

11.) Dog or cat?

Favorite Horror Films of the 1960s: Rosemary’s Baby

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https://en.wikipedia.org

Rosemary’s Baby is one of the most successful, influential, and important films in the history of American cinema, if not world cinema. In 1968, Roman Polanski directed this highly successful film, which was based on the novel by Ira Levin.  This book was also a bestseller, and the movie is a very close adaptation from the novel, often pulling its dialogue directly from the book. It is one of the rare cases when the film is almost as good as the book upon which it is based.

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https://en.wikipedia.org

In addition to being highly successful, this film used religious elements that arguably influenced other works such as The Exorcist.  It is clearly a Christian work and deals with the devil as the main antagonist, one that, in classic Gothic fashion, threatens an innocent.  This is a film that also speaks to the issue of fate vs free will and the choice of rejecting or embracing evil. The plot deals with a young woman whose husband might be part of a cult of the devil. She become impregnated, and the film features a disturbing sequence of a dream when a creature or demon or the devil rapes her. Her husband tells her he had sex with her while she slept; either way, both versions are deeply disturbing. The film equates sexual and spiritual victimization.  Rosemary gives birth, and nearly the entire population of the building in which she lives are shown as part of the cult.  In a chilling moment, she is told that her baby has “its father’s eyes,” and the child has glowing eyes.  At this point, Rosemary cradles the infant.

Is the film attacking the victimization of this young woman? Is she implicated at the end as part of accepting her place in the cult and the delivering of the devil’s child? That is ambiguous, but the film demands we examine the question and arrive at our own answer.

Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes star in the movie, and it would launch Mia Farrow into stardom.

If you are interested in horror cinema, this is a very important film, but it comes with the trigger warning, that many aspects of it are potentially deeply disturbing.

Favorite Horror Films of the 1960s: The Brides of Dracula

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A tsunami of horror films cascaded into movie theaters in the 1960s, some by the larger studios and an abundance of grade B-Z films from smaller companies. Following the success of Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy, Hammer created a plethora of sequels as well as new horror films. Frankenstein and Dracula would serve as the basis for the most sequels, thereby creating a seemingly non-ending money source for the studio, even as the films often became bad imitations of the original productions.

Oddly, the first sequel to The Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, (1960) does not feature Dracula as a character. Instead, the movie features a Baron Meinster, as the opening voice-over narration says is a disciple of the ongoing cult of vampirism led by the now destroyed Dracula. While Dracula does not appear, the renowned vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing does as played once more by Peter Cushing. Along with Baron Frankenstein, this role would establish Cushing as a major horror film star of the 1950s-1970s.

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The characters are indirectly based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, the foundation for most vampire films, until Anne Rice’s revolutionary treatment of the undead in Interview With The Vampire.

The plot involves a young teacher who is “wooed” by a Baron Meinster. He proposes to her, while intending to make her his vampire bride. The tone of the film is clearly Gothic, with an architectural focus on a castle, the threatened young maiden, and a Bryonic Hero–the Baron.  These are standard, but not all inclusive, elements of a Gothic tale, and the Byronic Hero is typically a sexually attractive and threatening person, but more importantly, someone who lives according to his or her own rules, ignoring  the dictates of society.

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https://en.wikipedia.org

While much of the film does not break new earth in exploring the vampire story, it does feature one very unusual twist. In one sequence, Dr. Van Helsing is attacked by a vampire and bitten. He passes out, and when he awakens, he is able to remove the curse of the vampire bite. He heats an iron in glowing coals, then uses it to cauterize the bite and finally pours holy water onto the wound. It works and suggest that the vampire attacks are not merely demonic but also infections. This motif is one that will be greatly developed in many later vampire novels, TV shows, and films.

Van Helsing is successful in destroying the vampire and saving the young woman. The motif of the holy symbols are repeated: Van Helsing throws holy water onto the face of the Vampire, repelling and burning him, and then he is able to catch the Baron in the shadow of a giant cross, which destroys him.

Terence Fisher directed, and the film did well enough at the box office to justify a chain of sequels. Even though Christopher Lee did not appear in this movie, he would soon return to reprise the role of Count Dracula in the near future.

Favorite Horror Films of the 1960s: The Birds

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After Psycho in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock directed and produced his other masterpiece of horror in 1963: The Birds. Both of these movies place Hitchcock in the forefront of filmmakers, not only in America, but in the history of world cinema. The Birds was based on the short story by Daphne Du Maurier, and starred Tippi Hedren in her first featured role, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, and Jessica Tandy, an extraordinary cast.

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The movie follows an unexplained series of attacks that centers on a small California coastal village of Bodega Bay. That the attacks come without warning are crucial to developing a central theme of this film: that nature can strike back at humanity without warning. It is a mid-20th century movie that posits an ecological warning to the world that we are not alone and our actions are not without potential consequences. Certainly, this might not be the only way to view this film, but I suggest it is a central and deeply important theme. It also

As such the ecologically horrific implications transcend the horror film aspect of the story, which is very powerful and effective, even nearly 53 years later. Hitchcock creates great tensions and frights throughout the film, often alternating sense of sparse filmic density with overloaded density of visual images to create impact. For example, the scene of the attack on the school begins with Melanie Daniels, Tippi Hendren, going to check on her friend, the schoolteacher. Daniels realizes that a class is still in session in the very quaint, old-fashioned schoolhouse, so she goes to smoke a cigarette. Remember, this is the 1960s, when most people smoked. She sits on a bench with a hill behind her, a schoolyard, and a wide expanse of sky. It is peaceful, serene, and visually calm. Then, in a classic moment of dramatic irony, we see the jungle gym behind her slowly filling with crows.  By the time Daniels notices the coming birds, the schoolyard is filled with them, creating a vast threatening menace. Without going into all the details of what happens, in case any of you have not seen  this film, it is a powerful and terrifying sequence.

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The film was a very expensive production for that time, costing between 2.5 to 3 million dollars, and it brought in over 11 million.  By any standards, it was highly successful and has elicited many forms of critical academic reaction, but all, or almost all, agree that it is a masterwork.

I give this movie my highest recommendation. If you love cinema, American movies, or horror films, you need to see it.

Favorite Horror Films of the 1960s: The Curse of the Werewolf

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https://en.wikipedia.org

The decade of the 1960s saw the production of many horror films, some fairly standard offerings and some innovative. In 1961, Hammer Studios continued the re-imagining of classic horror characters, which they had begun with The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, in the release of The Curse of the Werewolf. 

Movie audiences in 1961 were still very aware of the image of Universal Studios’ The Wolfman and its assorted sequels with Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, the unfortunate and reluctant lycanthrope. Talbot, a good man, was cursed to become a killing monster after having been bitten by a werewolf while attempting, unsuccessfully, to save a girl from its attack. This cinematic image was one that would be very difficult to alter for the horror viewing audience.

While not making viewers forget Lon Chaney Jr. and Larry Talbot, The Curse of the Werewolf, directed by Terence Fisher, did establish new cinematic territory in this often overlooked, but important, film. This film, unlike its Universal predecessors, which were made primarily in black and white and influenced heavily by German Expressionism, is shot in color and features an almost blond werewolf in an extremely effective makeup and, for the time, a great deal of blood.

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The star of this film, in his first movie, is Oliver Reed, who would go on to have a long and productive career as a film actor. Set in 18th Century Spain, the film bases its lycanthropy  on the juxtaposition of two events: Leon is the result of a peasant girl being raped, and he is born on Christmas Day, which was considered a very unlucky event. Leon is raised by a kindly man, but when puberty hits, besides the normal changes in his body, he becomes literally a monster.  What would Freud have to say about that?

Just as religion plays a part in his curse, so does it in his death. His step-father, a kindly man becomes the agent of his release. His step-father has a silver bullet made from a cross.  He shoots Leon with it, while his step-son is in the form of the monster; thus, he  destroys the werewolf and release’s Leon’s soul, but it also fills his step-father with deep grief.

Like the previous Hammer productions, this film continues with its exploration of sex and violence, going further than that which had been seen in the Universal films. While tame in sexual depictions by our contemporary standards, it was shocking to many audiences of the time.

From a critical perspective, this film also introduces an element of class critique. The young woman who is raped at the beginning of the film comes from abject poverty at the lowest level of the class structure, and the man who puts her in the cell, setting up the circumstances for the attack, is a Marques, a Spanish nobleman. Clearly, the film indicts the abuse of power and the class inequity of that time. If this were an academic paper, I would focus heavily on the class critique, but I simply wanted to draw attention to it briefly in this post.

The Curse of the Werewolf was another successful entry in Hammer Studios’ new cycle of horror films, although unlike the Dracula and Frankenstein movies, it would not generate a run of sequels. On its own, however, it rates as a film of importance in the horror genre.

Overall, if you have not seen this film, I give it a very strong recommendation.