PAGES IN TIME: Horror films scared me out of my gourd

PAGES IN TIME

by Milt Huntington

Frankenstein, The Wolfman and Dracula were the trio of terror who lurched from the silver screen to scare me out of my gourd during the early days of horror films. They survive to this day in sequels and parodies, but they’re not nearly as frightening as they were in their original form.

How well I remember, crouched in a darkened theater, peering through my fingers with my hands over my eyes as the music swelled to indicate something really bad was about to occur. My most horrific nightmares and trepidations of terror were brought to the surface by the monsters on the screen as I continually reminded myself: “It’s only a movie.”

Frankenstein

If I had to pick a favorite spook, I guess it would be Frankenstein, adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel and originally starring Boris Karloff. In spite of his square head, borrowed body parts and electrodes sticking out of his neck, he was kind of pitiful as he walked stiff-legged through the film, not quite understanding what the heck was going on. What fun Hollywood had with their countless repeats of the Frankenstein theme. When Abbott & Costello met Frankenstein in the movie of the same name, Costello looked down on the prostrate monster and scared poor Frankenstein half to death. Herman Munster, of course, was the epitome of modern day Frankenstein parodies.

The Werewolf

The werewolf flicks will never die. They go on endlessly from the original 1935 “Werewolf of London” in which a scientist brings the wolf curse upon himself. Next was the 1941 version of the Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr, whose remarkable make-up transition from man to wolf captivated me every time. The type-cast Chaney then appeared in a bunch of B-grade sequels, including “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.”

The full of the moon brought the Wolfman into full bloom with his evil eyes, two big fangs and hairy face and body. Only a silver bullet could take him out. The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, was the latest to do a take-off on the werewolf legend in his top-selling “Thriller” album.

Dracula

The well-dressed but blood-sucking Dracula may have been the most successful of all the horror films. The vampire has been portrayed nearly 200 times in horror films since the first one was released in 1931, starring Bela Lugosi. No silver bullet for him! You could hold him at bay for a spell by holding a cross to his face, but it took a stake through the heart to really do him in. Daylight was also tough on his skin, so he hunkered down in his casket and waited for night fall to take a bite out of life.

I love the story about Bela Lugosi’s actual funeral. It seems that his real-life friend, Boris Karloff, was standing and peering into the casket. Lugosi was looking ghastly white and very dead, not unlike the way he looked when he was made up for the movies.

Karloff was heard to say” “Bela, you wouldn’t put me on, would you?” Some of the humor born of horror films is equally entertaining. I remember George Hamilton, in a Dracula tale-off movie, being asked: “How do you like your stake?”

Lon Chaney Sr. was undoubtedly the best of the beasts. Known as the man of a thousand faces, his most famous role was perhaps “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Quasimodo, the poor deformed bell ringer, was enthralled by a lovely maiden, but he was hopelessly unattractive. I remember the scene when he clamored to the top of the cathedral and said sadly to the cement decorative cornice: “Oh, Gargoyle! Why am I not made of stone!” James Cagney had the leading role in the film depicting Chaney’s life and turned in a memorable performance.

Chaney delivered big time with his portrayal of “The Phantom of the Opera” in which he gets unmasked to reveal a hideous face. Several versions of the movie followed Chaney in the years ahead, one with Claude Raines. “The Phantom” was also a smash on Broadway.

Then, there were the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde films with leading actors like John Barrymore, Frederic March and Spencer Tracy. The kind doctor was transformed into the evil Hyde by drinking some concoction he had devised. Miriam Hopkins and Ingrid Bergman each took a shot at co-starring as the wicked, slutty prostitute. More recently, Julia Roberts gave the role a little different spin with her portrayal of Dr. Jekyll’s innocent maid.

Creaking doors, sudden sounds, fog-shrouded moors and the ever-present scary music all combined to keep my hair standing on end in movies like “The Mummy’s Ghost”, “The Invisible Man”, and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” with Sherlock Holmes. I particularly enjoyed being terrified by “The Beast With Five Fingers” in which a separated hand walks around throughout the flick. In the final close-up scene, the hand appears to be crawling up the shirt front of the narrator. When he sees the hand approaching his throat, his eyes bulge and he grabs at the hand only to find it is merely one of his own.

All the morbid tales of the living dead, the mad scientists and the half-man–half-animal creatures were cinematically designed to slip into the minds of theater-goers like me and keep us on the edge of our seats. Every kind of slimy, over-sized, reptilian monster is being brought to the screen today in movies like “Jurassic Park”. Then we have the movie, “Jaws”, which featured a great white shark approaching unsuspecting victims as the beat of a drum grows faster and louder to herald the monster’s arrival. As a grown-up adult, I handled that scene very well. I simply lifted my feet off the movie house floor and placed them under me on top of my seat.

Ah yes, all these classic monster movies from years gone by and all the scary films of today with their horrifying special effects are designed to raise our blood pressure and send chills down our collective backs. All those vampires, zombies, ghosts, and other grotesque and supernatural fiends play on our fears of the unknown and eventual death. Hey! Get over it. It’s only a movie!

Milt Huntington is the author “A Lifetime of Laughter” and “Things That MakeYou Grin.”

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