With Halloween around the corner, the focus is on the frightening. But It’s not necessary to head to the theatre for the latest slasher flick; the world of old movies offers plenty of eerie thrills! Monsters?man-made, human, animal, and supernatural?scared generations of moviegoers long before the age of computer-generated special effects and gore.
In this two-part feature, I’ll highlight some of the better old movies that have shaped the modern horror genre. In next week’s (Old) Movies instalment, I’ll look at some of these beloved, frightening, or frankly unlovable monsters that have become synonymous with October.
But this week, I’ll focus on something more realistic: villains who are human monsters, ordinary people whose minds have been twisted until they’ve become a little less than human. True horror isn’t solely the province of lumbering, bolt-headed experiments, hairy beasts, or brain-seeking zombies. As this week’s films reveal, evil exists in the human heart, and It’s there all year round.
A good starting point is 1932’s The Old Dark House, an early horror movie released the year after Dracula and Frankenstein brought the horror genre into the popular sphere. It’s a moody film, both through the plot (the bad weather, dreary house, and strange, psychotic behaviour of the house’s inhabitants) and the production values (flickering lighting, soundtrack of pounding rain and intermittent thunder, rooster crowing, etc.). Two groups of travellers, stranded by a rainstorm and mudslide, seek shelter at the titular house. Their hosts are the Femms, a strange and creepy family that seems a precursor to the Addams Family. All the Femms have been twisted by various forms of fear?fear of discovery, of God, of the dark secret they carry?and their behaviour means a long and uncomfortable night for their guests.
Trivia: The Femm family patriarch is actually played by a woman (her voice gives it away), since none of the male actors applying for the role looked old enough to pull off the hundred-year-old Sir Roderick. Also of note: the lovely Margaret is played by a (much, much) younger Gloria Stuart, who received an Academy Award nomination in 1997 for playing the elderly Rose in Titanic.
Fear and family are also themes in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Here, jealousy and hatred create a deadly rift between actress sisters. Decaying former child star Baby Jane Hudson is bitterly jealous of her once-unknown older sister, Blanche, whose adult acting career left Jane far behind. Now Blanche, crippled by an ?accident? that cost her the ability to walk, is physically dependent upon her scheming sister. Brilliantly played by Bette Davis, Jane both looks and acts the part of an unhinged, resentful old woman. But It’s not only Jane’s sinister plans and gleeful abuse of her sister that make this film creepy. Jane’s desperate longing for her glory days and her desire to once more be that famous little ?Baby Jane? create plenty of chills.
Trivia: The ill will displayed between the sisters may not have been entirely an act; Davis and Joan Crawford, who plays sister Blanche, allegedly despised one another. In fact, when Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Jane, Crawford campaigned against her nomination?despite the fact that winning it would have brought greater royalties to both. Framed by this real-life drama, the movie’s shock ending leaves you pondering to what depths jealousy and a desire for love can drive a person.
Ambition gone too far is also a driving force in the Roman Polanski-directed Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Here, Mia Farrow’s neurotic Rosemary, pregnant with her first child, deals with a growing terror that her baby is being groomed as a future sacrifice for a local coven of witches. Although the whole coven-of-senior-citizen-witches aspect seems silly rather than scary, It’s certainly an unsettling film. Rosemary’s dream sequence is eerie, as is the idea of the double lives led by many of the outwardly harmless characters.
Most chilling, though, is the behaviour of Rosemary’s husband, Guy, who lies to her, rapes her, poisons her, and lets her carry the spawn of the devil in her womb for nine months?all for an acting break. He’s the real monster in the movie. In the book on which the movie was based, the ending was ambivalent: was the whole thing a product of Rosemary’s pre- and post-partum paranoia, or did the diabolical plot actually exist? The movie’s ending is more cut and dried, and as such, doesn’t pack the novel’s disturbing punch.
Trivia: The film’s setting has a creepy connection. Did you recognize the haunted apartment building? The exterior shots were filmed in front of the Dakota in New York City, the apartment where John Lennon would later live and die.
Sometimes, the monster isn’t evident?or even visible?from the beginning. For someone who remains unseen in all but the last few seconds of the film, the mad scientist Dr. Griffin from The Invisible Man (1933) is plenty frightening. First, there’s his sepulchral voice: ?Leave me alone,? a line repeated throughout the film, sent shivers down my spine. Second, there’s Griffin himself. The invisibility-inducing drugs have affected his mind, and Griffin is focused on world domination, at whatever cost. He’s more than a mere crazy scientist: he’s a sinister, psychotic killer. Anyone who stands in his way is a potential victim, even his old colleague. He delights in creating mayhem (while reciting nursery rhymes in a few creepy sequences), and even takes a sadistic pleasure in murder: the glee in his voice as he describes to his former friend the manner in which he’ll die is good, scary stuff.
Trivia: Claude Rains, who plays Griffin (although mostly under wraps or off-screen), was a struggling film actor who was hired solely due to his voice. While unsuccessfully auditioning for another film, he was overheard by casting coordinators and booked in the role of the Invisible Man. Rains later went on to play Casblanca?s Captain Renault. While watching the film, take note of the special effects, which seem especially good when you consider that silent pictures were the norm just six years earlier. In fact, the sequence in which Rains finally materializes?first bone, then muscle, then skin?seems surprisingly modern.
In other films, the villain’s identity isn’t discovered until the movie’s final moments. These films are more frightening than the others, since the lack of knowledge is disconcerting. Combine this with the early elements of a slasher film and you’ll end up terrified. A prime example is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films, Psycho (1960).
As the story begins, a young woman on the run from the law checks in at a small roadside motel. But after the infamous shower murder scene, the story takes a completely different track. The murder is disturbing but, gore aside, the real terror in the movie comes from the unknown. Norman Bates, the Bates Motel’s owner, seems such a meek, callow young man?a weak-willed mama’s boy.
Viewers know there’s some dark secret afoot, but can’t guess what exactly is going on, even as the body count climbs. The tension from the ambiguity makes for thrills?and then some. I didn’t sleep well after seeing this one!
Trivia: Even before Psycho began filming, it created waves of controversy in Hollywood. Paramount, under contract with Hitchcock at the time, refused to green-light the project because of its shocking nature. Hitchcock, determined to make the movie, funded it himself (although even he shot it in black and white, partly to reduce the gore). Maybe because he was financially as well as emotionally invested in the picture, Hitchcock was especially insistent that Psycho?s plot remain secret. During the filming, he went to great length to buy up as many copies of the original novel as possible so as to keep the story unspoiled for his viewers.
Watching a few of these old horror movies should put viewers in the proper mood for some scary fun. Just in time for Halloween, next week’s instalment will showcase some of the classic monster movies: old favourites like Frankenstein and some lesser-known creatures. The feature will end in a lighter vein with some old horror parodies. ?Til then, happy?or frightful?watching!