It is a generally accepted truism among film historians that half of all films made before 1950 are lost. No copies are known to exist. By that metric, vast swathes of the horror films of the first half of the 20th Century should be unavailable for viewing. And yet…
Let’s take a headcount. The big one is, of course, Lon Chaney’s 1927 film, London After Midnight. The last known copy was destroyed in a fire in the mid-50s, and it has been The Holy Grail for horror fans ever since. Turner Classic Movies has assembled a sort of replica out of stills and the shooting script, but that’s a poor substitute.
What else? The 1930 version of The Cat and the Canary, entitled The Cat Creeps, both English and Spanish versions. The first two Golem films Paul Wegener made in Germany during the First World War. The second version of Frankenstein, Life Without Soul, from 1915, and an Italian version, Il Mostro de Frankenstein from 1921. Um…
Yes, there are more, but not as many major ones as one might think. Wonder why that is?
To find that out, we must needs peer back into the dark and abyss of time, to 1910. Carl Laemmle, a film exhibitor in New York City, decided he’d had enough of paying a royalty to Thomas Edison every time he used a movie projector. He also had a desire to make his own movies, but Edison collected even more exorbitant sums from anyone with the temerity to use one of his patented cameras. Laemmle’s solution was to uproot his whole operation, which consisted mostly of his relatives and relocate to somewhere in California, anywhere in California, far away from Thomas Edison and his patent attorneys. How about that sleeping little farming community near Los Angeles called Hollywood? Sure, sounds good. He called his new organization Universal Pictures. He set up shop out there and started making movies.
Within a couple of years, Jesse Lasky’s Famous Players followed suit, becoming Paramount Pictures in 1912. And so on, until Edison gave up on enforcing his patents and all the other studios followed Laemmle out to Hollywood.
Here’s the thing about Carl Laemmle: He never really caught on to the notion that feature-length was the way movies should be made. He was of the opinion that one or two reels per picture was plenty, each reel spooling out at roughly ten minutes. His underlings, Irving Thalberg and his son, Carl, Junior, among them, managed to convince him to allow longer productions, but Universal films still tended towards the shorter lengths. Nothing like the eight hours Erich von Stroheim was originally granted to make films like Greed over at M-G-M in 1924, but one of the biggest stars of the day, Lon Chaney, made a couple that hovered around an hour long while he was at Universal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera among them. Before long, both Chaney and Thalberg had moved over to M-G-M, and it was up to Carl, Junior, to convince the old man to let him make feature films. Senior gave in, but was still loathe to let things get too far out of hand.
And so it is that once Universal get into the horror movie business in 1931 with Dracula and then Frankenstein, these films are still a tad shorter than the standard feature-length. Dracula came in at an hour and fifteen minutes, Frankenstein at an hour and ten minutes.
Which has what to do with the state of film preservation that seems to favor our beloved genre over others? Simply this – that when Universal started marketing fifty-two of their classic horror films to television in October of 1957 under the name Shock!, that just-over-an-hour length was very attractive. Add in the right number of commercials, and Shock Theater, as the release was generally called by the local television stations, came in at a comfortable hour and a half time slot. The program managers at those stations liked that ninety-minute block, and gobbled up the package all over the United States. There was even room for a local host to make a few jokes about the picture, and still, fit everything in. Another batch containing both Universal and Columbia releases the next year called Son of Shock made the old monster films a national phenomenon.
America went monster crazy. Every scary picture ever made was resurrected from whatever archive it had been interred in to be shown on late-night weekend, early morning, or after school television. Hence, the unusual percentage of old horror pictures that survived, in comparison with most other genres.
Inspired by the renewed interest in the classics, American International, a Poverty Row studio that specialized in teen-oriented films for drive-in theaters, switched from hot rods and motorcycle gangs to teenage werewolves, Frankensteins, and cavemen. They hired Roger Corman to make black-and-white fright films on a budget, and once the studio had raked in enough teenage dollars, they bought some color stock and turned Corman loose on Edgar Allen Poe. England got in on the action, too, and Hammer films began remaking the old classics in lurid color. A new generation of horror stars arose – Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, along with a new set of scream queens in tight Victorian bodices barely containing their, um, huge tracts of land. Monsters weren’t just hip – they were sexy!
Of course, at the tender age at which I began to absorb all this cinematic mayhem in the early 1960s, sexy wasn’t really an issue for me. I just liked the stuff – the model kits, the toys, the Halloween costumes, the games, the television shows.
And the magazines. In particular, one magazine. The one essential chronicle of all that was unholy in the popular culture of the 1960s and beyond – Famous Monsters of Filmland.
Back in 1957, before I was even a gleam in my daddy’s eye, legendary science fiction fan, and collector, and literary agent to the speculative fiction field, Forrest J. Ackerman, had come across a French magazine, Cinema, while on a tour of science fiction conventions in Europe. The specific issue he found featured articles on horror movies, and even had a picture of Henry Hull’s lycanthrope from the 1935 Universal picture, The Werewolf of London, on the cover.
Once back in the states, Ackerman contacted a men’s (read, girly) magazine publisher named James Warren who had lost his shirt on his previous publication and was looking for something to put his last few dollars into. Ackerman sold Warren on the idea of a one-shot about the classic horror films, using stills from Ackerman’s own extensive collection and written by Ackerman himself in a sort of jokey, corny and yet very ingratiating style that later generations of comic-book fans might associate more closely with Stan Lee. The idea was for it to appeal to an ideal demographic of eleven-and-a-half-year-old boys. Younger and older ones with thirty-five cents would be welcome to purchase a copy, however, as well as girls of all ages.
Ackerman began assembling his first issue, but Warren couldn’t find a distributor. Fortunately, Life Magazine ran an article on the resurgence of interest in the old horror pictures, and suddenly any publication with a monster on the cover was pure gold. That first issue appeared on newsstands in February of 1958, Warren himself pictured on the cover in a Frankenstein mask ‘menacing’ his girlfriend. The furor over the horrors of yesteryear demanded an ongoing series, and so it was ordained. It was six months before the second issue came out, but by the third, dated April, 1959, FM (as true fans know it) was appearing quarterly. By the tenth issue, it was bi-monthly. It ran as a Warren publication until 1983 and has been revived a couple of times since then by other publishers.
The first issue I ever got my hands on was Number 35, dated October 1965. I had just turned seven. I have no recollection of how I acquired it, although I suspect I traded for it with one of the kids in the neighborhood. Probably swapped a comic book or two for it. That was still a thing in 1965. Anyhow, I thought we might flip through it and see what horrors lurk inside.
The cover is by Vic Prezio, depicting Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Not from the 1931 Dracula, the older vampire from Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Not sure if that was the intent, but it seems that way to me. Basil Gogos is the artist most often associated with FM covers, but Prezio did a fair number in this period. The inside front cover is a close-up photo of Oliver Reed’s lycanthrope from the 1961 Hammer film, Curse of the Werewolf. Page 3 is a synopsis of the contents, followed by ads for the Famous Monsters of Filmland Club, free to join with the attached coupon, and for the 1966 Yearbook. Then, there’s a table of contents, followed by a photo of Lugosi that I believe is from 1935’s Mark of the Vampire. It’s labeled ‘Public Vampire No. 1’. Subtle, ain’t it?
The first article covers Lugosi’s 1951 trip to England, during which time he gave lots of interviews and co-starred in a film variously called Vampires Over London, My Son the Vampire and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. Old Mother Riley was a popular character in English comedies at the time, played by comedian Arthur Lucan in drag. Not Bela’s finest moment, although much worse was yet to come.
A full-page close-up still of Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster is followed by the announcement of the winner of an amateur film-maker’s contest, won by Madona Marchant, who by the time this issue went to press had married cartoonist Rich Corben. Corben went on to have a long career illustrating horror comics for Warren’s Creepy and Eerie magazines, as well as the American iteration of the Heavy Metal magazine.
More on all those publications in a future installment of this column. Stay, as they say, tuned.
A rather interesting article is next, about the recently (at the time) discovered first film ever made by Charlton Heston. Heston was a seventeen-year-old high school student when he starred in an amateur film version of the Henryk Ibsen play, Peer Gynt. You can find it here:
Heston went on to star in the best version to date of the Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend, 1971’s Omega Man. Moses vs Vampires! Who could resist that?
The backlash by parents worried that horror movies, like horror comics a decade before, were warping their precious offspring, is addressed in the next article, “Monster Are Good for My Children – Yours Too!!!” I found it more persuasive than my mom and dad did, alas. Still, I survived and have yet to commit any of the atrocities forecast by those who were sure we monster fans were all destined to be mass murderers. Yet, being the operative word here.
One of the many ads for short snippets of eight-millimeter films scattered throughout the magazine follows, then came the Mystery Photo. This was a regular feature, an obscure still with vague clues to tantalize the fans, the answer to be revealed in the next issue.
Nine pages are devoted to one of the absolute worst horror movies of the first half of the 1960s, Night of the Blood Beast. Why? I have no idea. A few pages of miniatures photographed in Frankensteinian dioramas in France is followed by another regular feature, Hidden Horrors, in this case, a close-up of Norman Bates’ mother from Psycho. Mom’s looking a bit peaked there, Normie.
We then get a synopsis with stills of the American release of Godzilla (1956), Revenge of Mystery Lines (a horror movie quotes quiz), You Axed for It! (reader requested stills), and a two-page advertisement for back issues. “The Gordons Will Get You!” concerns the cheesy b-movie makers Alex and Rich Gordon, who made several of the very first horror-SciFi movies I remember seeing on television. More ads, then a two-page spread on Lon Chaney, Junior’s 1952 appearance as the Frankenstein monster on the television series, Tales of Tomorrow, which like most early television was broadcast live. No mention is made, however, of Chaney being too far in his cups to realize it wasn’t a rehearsal. He was therefore very careful to not break any of the furniture he was supposed to, thinking it would be needed for the ‘real’ broadcast. Sort of diminished the verisimilitude, that.
A letters page, Monster Mail Call, and Headlines from Horrorsville finished up the editorial content and were followed by over twenty pages of ads for 8mm films, projectors on which to show said films, books, records, masks, decals, the first few issues of Creepy, knickknacks, gewgaws and various odds and ends. All the advertising indicated the goodies were to be ordered from Captain Company, Warren’s own distributor of the sundries sold throughout the issue, and every issue for the magazine’s run. The history of Captain Company will no doubt be told in a future installment.
That’s a pretty average issue, regardless of year. FM reprinted content constantly, so every article in this issue showed up in a later one. In the 1970s, Star Wars sort of took over, but you could always count on the monsters of yesterday filling in. I happened to be reading a much later issue containing an article on 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein reprinted from God-knows which earlier issue the first time I heard “Your Move” by progressive rock band Yes on the radio, in about 1971. To this day, I can’t hear the song without thinking about the movie, and vice versa. Funny how memory works, isn’t it?
I did meet Ackerman, once, in 1980. He was one of several guests at the Nashville science fiction convention that year, Kubla Khan Ate, with Stephen King being the main Guest of Honor. ‘Uncle Forry’ showed me the rings he was wearing, one that Lugosi wore in Dracula in 1931, the other worn by Karloff in The Mummy the next year. We had a nice chat about those films, and others then settled down to discuss silent films of all genres. It was one of those pleasant little interludes that occurred at cons in those days. One of many things I miss from my misspent youth. I did run into King, briefly, the last day of that convention. I spent considerably more time with him a few years later, at the 1983 DeepSouth Con in Knoxville. More on that later.
So, there it is. I do hope folks are enjoying these little excursions through my monstrous memories. Expect more next month, when the theme for the first part of April is religious horror. No idea as of yet what I’ll share about that topic, but I hope it will be interesting. Until, then, as always —
Fiends in the Funnies, Creatures in the Comics by Mark Orr
One of my fondest memories of my pre-literate childhood is of sitting on the couch with my dad after he got home from work, or after church on Sundays, and he would read me the comic strips from the newspaper. He did all the voices differently, with lots of drama and humor and everything you’d want in a comics reader. Li’l Abner and Kerry Drake, Miss Peach and Grandma, Jimmy Hatlo’s They’ll Do it Every Time are all long-gone and forgotten now. Blondie and Dick Tracy and Nancy are still around, but who reads newspapers anymore?
Dad is eighty-eight and thinking about moving into an assisted living facility, so those memories are very much on my mind these days. I roll them over and over on my mind’s tongue, savoring as many of the minutes as I can call up after almost sixty years.
One thing I don’t recall is that any of our regular favorite comic strips in either of the Nashville papers of that time were in the least monstrous or horrific. Since I started accumulating material for my vast amorphous history of horror project some years ago, of which this column is a manifestation, I have looked for expressions of horror in all possible media, and generally found an abundance in each one. Except in the syndicated newspaper comic strips.
Full disclosure: I have not subscribed to a printed newspaper in years. However, I do subscribe to a daily service that sends approximately seventy-five comics strips to my email box every day. Of those seventy-five, exactly one has the kind of themes or characters one most often thinks of as horror-related. Almost all of them are more-or-less the typical gag-a-day strips usually found these days. Day-to-day continuity lasting over weeks and months is virtually a thing of the past.
Once upon a time, though, a significant proportion of the comics page was taken up with extended storylines in strips in all the genres represented in the medium – humor, drama, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, war, romance, soap operas, even religion. And thanks to the internet, a huge amount of that material is available for the perusal of historians of those bygone years.
I belong to what used to be a Yahoo group before Yahoo did away with groups, that mines online newspaper archives and stacks of slowly disintegrating newspapers for comic strips and disseminates them to the membership. I receive a minimum of sixty or seventy old comics strips every day, usually closer to two hundred. Some days, long runs covering years or decades of one or more particular strips will show up, and that count goes up into thousands or even tens of thousands. Of all the titles I receive, the ones with even peripherally or occasional horrific content go into a separate file on one of my external hard drives. The list is not a long one. It begins with…
Okay, so, if Dinosaurus can be sort of classified as a monster picture, or Jurassic Park or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or The Giant Behemoth, then dinosaurs are monsters, right? They are monstrously big, and there are plenty you wouldn’t want to meet in person. Several strips have been set in that mythical period during which humans and dinosaurs ‘co-existed’.
The first was Our Antediluvian Ancestors, which ran from 1901 to roughly 1906. It was created by prolific cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper for the Hearst Syndicate.
There are only two currently running that I know of. One is B.C., a gag-a-day strip that only occasionally features dinosaurs, and then only in service of a specific joke. B.C. premiered seven months and eight days before I did, in 1958. Created by Johnny Hart (1931-2007), who also created The Wizard of Id (see the section on dragons, below), it is currently being produced by Hart’s grandson, Mason Mastroianni.
The longest-running dinosaur strip is Alley Oop, which debuted in 1932, three months and a day after my father. Are we seeing a trend here? Alley is a caveman who rides a brontosaurus named Dinny. In 1939, he and his girlfriend Ooola were snatched out of time and brought to the 20th Century by Professor Wonmugg’s time machine. I know of no one in my immediate or extended family born around that time. His subsequent adventures sent him all up and down the timeline, where (when?) he encountered ghosts and witches, among many other characters. In 1953 he found himself in the time of Macbeth as the events of Shakespeare’s play occurred, despite the play having little to do with the historical Macbeth.
Peter Piltdown was another anachronistic prehistoric comic strip, created by Mal Eaton. It ran from 1935 to 1946, then re-appeared in the pages of Boy’s Life Magazine in 1953 under the title of Rocky Stoneax. It lasted there until 1970. It was retitled because the Piltdown Man fossils had been found to be a hoax in the meantime, which is a whole ‘nother discussion I’ll save for later, if ever. Boy’s Life was produced by and for the Boy Scouts of America, so every Boomer boy who spent any time in Scouts likely ran across the strip. I remember it fondly, now that its original version has recently been among those I get via email from time to time.
Gary Larson’s The Far Side occasionally featured dinosaurs in his daily gags, usually observing the meteor about the wipe them out. They weren’t necessarily the focus of the strip, though, so that’s all I have to say about that.
Which of course leaves The Flintstones, although they began as a prime-time animated television series before appearing in newspaper syndication, as well as in comic books and other media. More dinosaurs used as props, generally, for the prehistoric antics of Fred and Barney and the gang.
One step up the monster ladder from dinosaurs would be, naturally, dragons. Dragons tend to pop up in strips set in Medieval times, along with witches and wizards and knights in shining armor. The aforementioned The Wizard of Id has been running since 1964. The dragon in that strip is the pet of the title character.
In 1937, Hal Foster turned the art chores on the Tarzan comic strip over to Burne Hogarth. He then began what has consistently been the most beautifully drawn comic strip ever since, Prince Valiant. Appearing only as a full-color Sunday strip, it has been drawn by John Cullen Murphy since 1971. Foster also gave legendary comic book artists Wally Wood and Gray Morrow tryouts before giving it over to Murphy. More of a Medieval adventure strip, the occasional dragons tend to be more-or-less lizards of unusual size, rather than true fire-breathers.
Two years before Prince Valiant, writer William McCleery and artist Ralph Fuller debuted Oaky Doaks, a strip about a Medieval farmboy who makes his own suit of armor out of a tin roof and goes about rescuing damsels in distress and slaying the odd dragon in the process. The strip ran until 1961.
Sir Bagby, created by brothers Rick and Bill Hackney, ran from 1957 to 1967. I’ve only got eighteen examples in my collection, but those few strips do include a polite but not altogether trustworthy dragon and a gryphon having an identity crisis.
There have been a number of science fiction comics strips with the occasional monster popping up like the saarlac in Return of the Jedi, but they weren’t really the focus of the strips. In this class we find Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Brick Bradford, Don Dixon and others, none of which warrant much more than a mention here. Worth looking at, but not particularly in this space.
Numerous comics strips have had the occasional spooky storyline, mostly ones that turn out to be less due to supernatural causes than the machinations of evil mortals. Oriental adventure strip character Ming Foo, who spouted more aphorisms in one strip than Charlie Chan managed in an entire movie, began life in 1934 as a ‘topper’ strip for the Little Annie Rooney Sunday page. Back in the days when Sunday comics were full page affairs instead of chopped up to fit five or six on one page, a secondary strip would often run at the top, over the main one, hence ‘topper’. Jungle Jim was the topper for Flash Gordon, Colonel Potterby for Blondie, and so forth. Ming Foo encountered a Mad Monster in 1940, a Sea of Mirthful Demons in 1941, and wandered about on the Graveyard Island in 1942. He vanished from the comics pages a year later.
In addition to his many years in the Saturday morning cartoon milieu, Bullwinkle enjoyed a few years as a daily comic strip. He spent a few months in 1963 in Transylvania, where everybody’s favorite moose encountered a Dr. Jekyll who looked suspiciously like Boris Karloff, Count Draculet, a ballet-dancing mummy, and a singing werewolf.
You would think that a comic strip about a character called The Phantom would have more supernatural content, but the Ghost Who Walks is no ghost. Rather, he was a generational hero whose costume and accouterments were passed down from father to son. He has faced the odd witch doctor since he was created in 1936 by Lee Falk, but that’s about it. His adventures are still appearing, and are even more popular in Australia, Scandinavia and India than in his home country.
Adaptations of popular books and stories in the daily comics were a fairly regular occurrence in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I have three separate adaptations of the classic Charles Dickens ghost story, A Christmas Carol, from 1937, 1950 and 1957. A strip called Famous Fiction adapted a couple of Edgar Allen Poe tales, “The Gold Bug” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, in the early 1940s. I’m sure there were others I have yet to track down.
There was a whole class of single panel comics during the Golden Age of Hollywood that were basically promotional strips for the studios, featuring the odd hobbies of the stars or hints that you really, really need to get out and see this or that movie when it comes around to your town. Horror movie stars such as Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney or Bela Lugosi were occasionally mentioned, which is just enough horror content to justify this paragraph. The titles of these strips included Closeup and Comedy, Private Lives and Seein’ Stars.
And now, we’re down to the four strips that can honestly be considered horror, that are truly inhabited, from beginning to end, top to bottom, side to side by monsters. The peripherals and occasionals are dealt with, and we’re left with these favored few. Over one hundred and twenty-five years of comic strip history, and this is what it boils down to.
And three of them are humorous.
Maybe the comic strip medium simply isn’t suitable for sustaining the tension of the genre. Perhaps three panels a day and a Sunday page just won’t bear the weight of true fright. Perhaps. Regardless, here they are:
Before creating the classic children’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson came up with one of the great comic strips of all time. Barnaby was a five-year-old child who wished for a fairy godmother. What he got was a cigar smoking and rarely competent fairy godfather named Jackeen J. O’Malley. Their whimsical adventures meandered through plots involving standard issues of the day like scrap metal drives and victory gardens, but also ogres, gorgons, witches and wizards, and of course, Gus the Ghost. Never a success, Barnaby limped along from 1942 to 1952, never appearing in more than fifty-two newspapers. Still, Dorothy Parker loved it. There have been several reprints of the strip since 1943, when Holt issued two hardback volumes, both of which occupy honored places in my library. Fantagraphic Books has issued four volumes of a projected five-volume set of reprints covering the entire run. A play based on the characters was written and produced in 1946. It was adapted to television in 1959, starring Ron Howard as Barnaby and former Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr as Mr. O’Malley.
Russ Myers’ 1970 creation is still running. The title character is an alcoholic, cigar-smoking witch whose best friend is a troll. There’s a monster in a cave named Grelber who insults anyone foolish enough to get close to him. It’s a gag-a-day about these monsters and a few other beings. I’ve always enjoyed it, but it’s not scary. Moving on.
Gary is a vampire who has retired to suburbia with his demonic henchman, Leonard, a bedsheet-clad ghost named Owen, and a severed head in a jar named Travis. There’s also a zombie baby wandering around the neighborhood in one of those circular walker things all my grandkids had. Don’t try to tickle that baby. You’ll draw back a nub. It’s a gag-a-day, usually involving Leonard being horrible to anyone in reach, Owen whining about being dead or Travis wishing he still had limbs. Scary Gary was created by Mark Buford in 2008. It’s one of the seventy-five strips I get every morning in my email, and usually, the first one I read.
Finally, a serious comic strip with real continuity, starring daytime soap opera vampire Barnabas Collins. It was drawn by long-time comic book and comic strip artist Ken Bald under the penname Ken Bruce to avoid confusion with the other strip he was doing at the time, Dr. Kildare. Because those were so much alike. Dark Shadows had already been adapted to a Gold Key comic book that lasted thirty-five issues, and a long series of gothic romance novels by Marilyn Ross, who was actually William Edward Daniel Ross, because nobody would buy a gothic romance by a man in those days. Bald’s work on the newspaper version was beautifully done, a significant improvement over the comic books drawn by Joe Certa.
Which was probably why the strip lasted, oh, let me see…
A year. A YEAR? Seriously? One measly year?!?!?
‘Fraid so. March 14th, 1971 to March 11, 1972. That’s it. That’s all we get of the only truly horrific monster-populated comic strip ever created in the century and a quarter of the existence of the art form. Unless I’ve missed one, which is possible. If I have, please let me know in the comments.
Maybe we’ll have another one, someday, if the medium survives. We can only hope. In the meantime, as always…
Oh, one last thing: the article in the link below came to me too late for Women in Horror month, so I’ll just leave it here and let the populace peruse it at will.
At the end of the silent movie period, French film director René Clair went on the record as being very skeptical of sound, feeling that it was “an unnatural creation” Cinema as its own art form was a purely visual one, he thought, and the introduction of sound would make films nothing more than recorded stage plays. He relented, and made some truly great sound films, but watching what is, as far as I’ve been able to determine the earliest surviving Japanese horror film, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness), one might wonder if he wasn’t on to something.
Not that Kinugasa was aware of Clair’s opinion in 1926, or even of his work; there’s no indication that he saw any western films at the beginning of his career. He started in the industry as a female impersonator in 1917, then switched to directing once Japanese studios began using female actors in the early 1920s. It wasn’t until 1929 that he had the opportunity to travel abroad and encounter European films, which makes Kurutta Ippeji all the more remarkable. Stylistically, it would fit very nicely into any one of several European traditions, particularly German expressionism. There is in Kinugasa’s picture more than a trace of what the French called Caligarisme, that most extreme variety of expressionism exemplified by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to be sure. However, it’s purely a parallel development, as Kinugasa wouldn’t have known Caligarisme in 1926 if he tripped over it. He was talented enough to discover it on his own.
A more impressive achievement is that it truly is a silent film, even more so than any that Clair had directed in France up until that time. There are no intertitles, those cards that pop up periodically in almost all silents with bits of dialogue or expository material. Kinugasa was able to tell a coherent story with no dialogue, no expository material. The images are the story, and they need nothing else.
The story is, to be sure, a simple one. A man hires on as a janitor at the insane asylum where his wife is an inpatient. He loses contact with reality himself while attempting to extricate her from the asylum against her will, plus deal with his daughter’s disintegrating marriage. His own mental state comes to mirror that of several of the other inmates, and it is in the presentation of their madness and his that Kinugasa creates some truly horrific imagery. It possesses a poetic subtlety that possibly doesn’t translate well into our time for most modern horror fans, which is a damn shame.
Like almost all early Japanese films, it was thought lost until Kinugasa came across a copy in his garden shed in the 1970s, a few years after his long and very productive career had come to an end. He died in 1982, at the age of eighty-six.
Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday was yesterday as I write this, an anniversary that should be near and dear to the hearts of all horror fans. Poe is also revered by the mystery buffs, who named their most prestigious award the Edgar in his honor. And in his honor, the second part of this celebration of Asian horrors is herewith presented unto the populace.
Japanese mystery writer Tirō Hirai adopted the pseudonym Edogawa Ranpo (sometimes written as Rampo) in 1923. If you say that new name fast, it sort of sounds like Poe’s full name, which was the point, I do believe. Regardless, he had a long and distinguished career as a mystery author, penning numerous novels and short stories.
Which has what to do with horror, Asian or otherwise? you may well ask. Well, like many writers, Ranpo had difficulty playing in his own sandbox. On occasion, he would tinker with other genres. One such time, he came up with what might well be the creepiest tale I’ve ever read.
A prominent lady writer receives a manuscript from an aspiring author. In it, he tells of his life as a hideously ugly and poverty-stricken chair-maker, a man whose carpentry skills are as great as his social skills are poor. Having received a commission for a large chair to be installed in a fancy hotel, he decides to build one that he can hide in so that he can sneak out and steal from the wealthy clientele. He spends months living in this chair, emerging from it at night to pilfer valuables. He waxes rhapsodic on how various people sit on him during the day, how he could differentiate one type of person from another by how their bodies press down onto his.
After a long time, the carpenter writes, the hotel decided to redecorate, and the chair was sold. And guess what! You’re sitting on me now! The lady author freaks and flees, only to receive a second letter telling her that the manuscript is pure fiction, ha-ha, just kidding. Did you like it and would you help me get it published? It shall be called, “The Human Chair”. This seems like a cheat on a par with The Wizard of Oz having all been a dream. If the second letter is true.
See? Creepy, right?
Ranpo published his story, also called “The Human Chair”, in 1925, in the October issue of the literary magazine, Kuraku. I first read it in David Alexander’s 1962 paperback anthology, Tales for a Rainy Night.
It can also be found in Peter Haining’s 1972 anthology Beyond the Curtain of Dark and in Ranpo’s own collection, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. And no doubt in others. I encourage all and sundry among the populace to seek it out, in order to see for yourself if it delivers the same frisson to you it did to me the first time I read it.
As is de rigueur for this time of year, we look back at some of the genre connected people who passed away in 2020. Some connections are tenuous, some very solid. A few names, everyone knows. Many, I didn’t even know until I set out on this journey.
By the way, there be spoilers here. Act accordingly.
Veronika Fitz (3/28/36-1/2/20) German actress with a nearly six-decade career. Her only genre performance that I could find was a bit part in The Haunted Castle (1960). Oh, well. We had to start somewhere.
Robert Blanche (March 30, 1962 – January 3, 2020) American actor, played Sgt. Franco on the American television program, ‘Grimm’, from 2012 to 2017.
Edd Byrnes (July 30, 1932 – January 8, 2020) American actor, best known to the generation just prior to mine for his role as Kookie in the television mystery show, ’77 Sunset Strip’. Played a psycho killer in 1973’s Wicked, Wicked, a film notable only for its use of a split-screen for its entire running time. Brian de Palma had used the technique of showing two scenes at once in parts of his film, Sisters, that same year. Too much of a good thing, in this case.
Buck Henry (December 9, 1930 – January 8, 2020) American actor, writer, director. Creator of the classic ‘60s TV spy spoof ‘Get Smart’, frequent first season contributor to ‘Saturday Night Live’, and doomed swinger in the 1982 dark comedy, Eating Raoul.
Ivan Passer (10 July 1933 – 9 January 2020) Czech director of 1988’s Haunted Summer, one of several films about the 1815 gathering in Switzerland that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s Vampyre.
Mike Resnick (March 5, 1942 – January 9, 2020) Award-winning American science fiction writer and editor. Author of The Official Guide to Fantastic Literature (1976).
Carol Serling (February 3, 1929 – January 9, 2020) The widow of Rod Serling, who guided the Twilight Zone brand through decades of reinvention and adaptation into other media, including the magazine of the same name.
Neda Arnerić (15 July 1953 – 10 January 2020) Serbian actress, Venom (a.k.a. The Legend of Spider Forest, 1971)
Patrick Jordan (10 October 1923 – 10 January 2020) English actor who spent most of a long career as a character actor on the BBC, but did manage to squeeze in a bit part in the 1959 kaiju classic, The Giant Behemoth.
Robert Sampson (May 10. 1933 – January 18, 2020) American actor who appeared in the TV shows ‘One Step Beyond’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’, and as Dean Halsey in 1985’s Re-Animator.
Terry Jones (1 February 1942 – 21 January 2020) Welsh actor and writer and founding member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Played Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a performance that required him to run away from several scary things. That rabbit’s dynamite!
John Karlen (May 28, 1933 – January 22, 2020) American actor. Ah, yes. Willie Loomis himself, who foolishly awoke vampire Barnabas Collins on the classic horror soap opera, ‘Dark Shadows’. In the second half of the 1960s, everyone I knew ran home from school to plop down in front of the television in order to find out what devilment Barnabas was up too, all because Willie had been tempted by the rumors that the undead main character had treasure buried in his coffin with him. He ought to have known better. Nobody puts chains around a coffin to keep people out. The chains are obviously there to keep the occupant in. Duh.
Robert Harper (May 19, 1951 – January 23, 2020) American actor devoured by the inhabitant of ‘The Crate’ in 1982’s Creepshow.
Monique van Vooren (March 25, 1927 – January 25, 2020) Belgian actress who essayed multiple roles in Andy Warhol’s 1973 film, Flesh for Frankenstein.
Jack Burns (November 15, 1933 – January 27, 2020) American actor and comedian, best known for his partnership with Avery Schreiber in the comedy team of, you guessed it, Burns & Schreiber, and for being Barney Fife’s replacement on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’. Did make one appearance on the late ‘60s supernatural TV show, ‘The Ghost & Mrs. Muir’.
Norbert Moutier (1941 – 27 January 2020) French director of 1983’s Mad Mutilator and 1993’s Dinosaur from the Deep.
Marj Dusay (2/20/36-1/28/20) American actress who had a lead role in the 1969 TV movie, Dead of Night: A Darkness at Blaisedon, a pilot for a supernatural investigations series that was not picked up by the network. She appeared in virtually every television series made in the United States during her very long career, including in one episode of the short-lived Tucker’s Witch in 1982, also a supernatural investigations show.
Nicholas Parsons (10 October 1923 – 28 January 2020) English actor. Okay, blame the Beatles for this, or maybe Elvis, but it seemed that every rock & roll band in the ‘60s made an effort to break into movies. The Spencer Davis Group tried their hand in 1966 in a fab little feature called The Ghost Goes Gear. Gear being a synonym of the time for fab, or george, or groovy. As opposed to grotty. Clear as mud? Parsons played the band’s manager, a nobleman whose manor house was haunted. I recommend sticking with A Hard Day’s Night.
Dyanne Thorne (October 14, 1936 – January 28, 2020) American actress, ‘star’ of Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S. (1975). Naughty, naughty Ilsa, performing all those awful experiments on her barely clothed female prisoners in her own personal Nazi concentration camp. Camp being the operative word.
Mary HigginsClark (December 24, 1927 – January 31, 2020) American author of numerous suspense novels than danced around the edges of being horror.
Andrée Melly (15 September 1932 – 31 January 2020) English actress in The Brides of Dracula in 1960 and the cheapjack retread of William Castle’s 1963 remake of The Old Dark House called The Horror of it All in 1964. Her image from Brides was also picked for the Old Maid in a 1964 monster card game in which she is misidentified as Dracula’s Daughter.
One of several things that Milton Bradley got wrong. Sounds like meat for a future column.
Katsumasa Uchida (19 September 1944 – 31 January 2020) Japanese actor, played an Interpol agent in 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla.
Lila Garrett (November 21, 1925 – February 1, 2020) American writer who scribed a dozen episodes of the 1960s supernatural TV series, ‘Bewitched’.
Luciano Ricceri (26 April 1940 – 1 February 2020) Italian production designer for the 1966 dark comedy, The Devil in Love.
Lovelady Powell (May 9, 1930 – February 2, 2020) American actress who appeared in one episode of ‘Dark Shadows’ in 1966 and in the 1972 horror thriller, The Possession of Joel Delaney
José Luis Cuerda (18 February 1947 – 4 February 2020) Spanish producer, The Others (2001), with Nicole Kidman.
Gianni Minervini (26 October 1928 – 4 February 2020) Italian producer of the 1976 Giallo, The House of the Laughing Windows
Kirk Douglas (December 9, 1916 – February 5, 2020) American actor not generally known for genre work, but he did star in a not-well-received musical TV version of ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ in 1973.
F. X. Feeney (September 1, 1953 – February 5, 2020) American screenwriter on Roger Corman’s 1990 adaptation of the Brian Aldiss novel, Frankenstein Unbound.
Raphaël Coleman (30 September 1994 – 6 February 2020) American actor in the 2009 remake of It’s Alive.
Orson Bean (July 22, 1928 – February 7, 2020) American actor who was all over television in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and who made one appearance on ‘The Twilight Zone’.
Robert Conrad (March 1, 1935 – February 8, 2020) If you love steampunk, this is one of the guys who created it. Conrad was the star of ‘The Wild Wild West’, still after fifty years my favorite TV show of all time. Only one episode is truly horror related, ‘The Night of the Man-Eating House’. Hurd Hatfield from 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the guest star.
Paula Kelly (October 21, 1942 – February 8, 2020) American actress in the borderline horrific science fiction films, 1971’s The Andromeda Strain and 1973’s Soylent Green. Spoiler alert: It’s People!
Ron McLarty (April 14, 1947 – February 8, 2020) American actor whose first film role was as the real estate agent in 1977’s The Sentinel, which was based on the Jeffrey Konvitz horror novel of the same name.
Mirella Freni (27 February 1935 – 9 February 2020) Italian operatic soprano who sang in several genre-related operas over her illustrious fifty-year career, including Gounod’s Faust and Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (AKA Queen of Spades).
Marjorie Redmond (December 14, 1924 – February 10, 2020) American television actress, likely best known as Sister Jacqueline in ‘The Flying Nun’ (yes, a ‘60s TV show about a nun who, you guessed it, could fly), with stopovers along the way in ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘The Munsters’, as well as an episode of the spin-off (sort of) from Rod Serling’s ‘Night Gallery’, ‘The Sixth Sense’ in 1972.
Raphael Romero Marchent (May 3, 1926 – February 13, 2020) Mexican director, Santo vs Doctor Death (1973) and Curse of the Black Cat (1977).
Zoe Caldwell (14 September 1933 – 16 February 2020) Australian actress with one appearance on the TV version of radio’s classic series, ‘Suspense’, in 1960. She’s best known for her stage performances in Macbeth and Medea, both of which have horrific connections. In fact, in early 1983, she brought her touring company of Medea to Knoxville, Tennessee, while my wife and I were students there. Yes, we saw it, and, yes, it was very, very good. Mitchell Ryan, late of ‘Dark Shadows’ and Dame Judith Anderson, who co-starred with Vincent Price in the great film noir, Laura, in 1946, appeared with her. There is a filmed performance of that production on YouTube.
Frances Cuka (21 August 1936 – 16 February 2020) English actress in 1980’s Watcher in the Woods with Bette Davis, and one episode of the ‘Hammer House of Horror’ BBC series.
Sonja Ziemann (8 February 1926 – 17 February 2020) German actress, Ghost in the Castle (AKA Spuk im Schloß, 1947)
Flavio Bucci (25 May 1947 – 18 February 2020) Italian actor, Suspiria (1977)
Bob Cobert (October 26, 1924 – February 19, 2020) Soundtrack composer on numerous genre films and TV shows, including the aforementioned ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ with Kirk Douglas; House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971); and The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973), the forerunners of the ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ TV series. Also, The Norliss Tapes (1973), 1974’s TV Dracula with Jack Palance, and the 2012 Dark Shadows feature film with Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins.
José Mojica Marins (13 March 1936 – 19 February 2020) Brazilian actor best known as Coffin Joe in a trilogy of films, 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, 1967’s This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse and The Embodiment of Evil in 2008, with numerous other spooky film and TV appearances along the way.
Peter Dreher (26 August 1932 – 20 February 2020) German artist who enjoyed painting skulls. He called this series of creepy images ‘Totenschädel‘.
Claudette Nevins (April 10, 1937 – February 20, 2020) American actress, The Mask (1961). Not the one with Jim Carrey. This one is in 3-D, which would be much too much to tolerate from a Jim Carrey movie.
Nicola Cuti (October 29, 1944 – February 21, 2020) Comic book writer, editor and artist who wrote well over two hundred scripts for the horror comics line published by Charlton Comics in the 1970s, and co-created with artist Joe Staton the classic comic book super-hero, E-Man.
Boris Leskin AKA Boris Lyoskin (5 January 1923 – 21 February 2020) Romanian actor who had a small role in 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss with Nicolas Cage.
Russ Cochran (July 3, 1937 – February 23, 2020) A former physics professor who quit academia to collate and reprint the EC Comics of the early 1950s, preserving for new generations those gruesome yarns from crumbling issues of Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror. And some other stuff, Disney and Hopalong Cassidy comics and the like.
Ben Cooper (September 30, 1933 – February 24, 2020) American actor who made appearances on TV’s ‘Suspense’, ‘One Step Beyond’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’.
Michael Hugh Medwin, (18 July 1923 – 26 February 2020) American actor with one genre performance, in 1949’s Queen of Spades.
R. D. Call (February 16, 1950 – February 27, 2020) American character actor with appearances in ‘X-Files’ and ‘Supernatural’, among many, many other television shows.
Dieter Laser (17 February 1942 – 29 February 2020) German actor, Human Centipede (First Sequence), 2009
Frank McLaughlin (March 18, 1935 – March 4, 2020) Comic book artist and art director for Charlton Comics whose first credited work was on a story in the kaiju comic, Reptisaurus, in 1961.
Max von Sydow (10 April 1929 – 8 March 2020) Swedish actor and long-time collaborator with director Ingmar Bergman, he played chess with death in 1957 in The Seventh Seal and died trying to drive Pazuzu out of Linda Blair in The Exorcist in 1973.
Gary B. Kibbe (January 9, 1941 – March 9, 2020) American cinematographer on the John Carpenter films Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Village of the Damned (1995), Escape from L.A. (1996) and Vampires (1998), and one episode of HBO’s ‘Tales from the Crypt’, 1992’s ‘King of the Road’ starring Brad Pitt.
Suzy Delair (31 December 1917 – 15 March 2020) French actress in the 1942 dark comedy L’assassin habite… au 21 (The Murderer Lives at Number 21).
Roy Hudd, (16 May 1936 – 15 March 2020) English actor who played a morgue attendant in 1968’s The Blood Beast Terror, which starred Peter Cushing.
Stuart Whitman (February 1, 1928 – March 16, 2020) American leading man, star of many theatrical and television westerns, mysteries and adventure yarns, with one episode of ‘Night Gallery’ on his resume. He also co-starred with Psycho victim Janet Leigh in 1972’s Night of the Lepus, generally considered one of the worst movies ever made. I will not take an opposing position on that question.
Giovanni Romanini (27 December 1945 – 20 March 2020) Italian cartoonist, illustrator of the dark and often horrific Italian comic book series, Satanik, in the early 1970s.
Lucia Bosè (28 January 1931 – 23 March 2020) Italian actress who had a small role in Jean Cocteau’s 1960 film, Testament d’Orphee.
David Collings (4 June 1940 – 23 March 2020) English actor who played Bob Cratchit in 1970’s Scrooge.
Melinda O. Fee (October 7, 1942 – March 24, 2020) American actress who played Mrs. Webber in 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddie’s Revenge.
Stuart Gordon (August 11, 1947 – March 24, 2020) American screenwriter and director on 1985’s Re-Animator, the 1991 version of The Pit and the Pendulum, 2001’s Dagon, and two episodes of the ‘Masters of Horror’ TV show.
Juan Padron (January 29, 1947 – March 24, 2020) Cuban director of Vampiros en La Habana (1985) and Mas Vampiros en La Habana (2003).
Barbara Rütting (21 November 1927 – 28 March 2020) German actress in early ‘60s adaptations of a couple of Edgar Wallace’s horror-thriller novels, Der Zinker (The Squeaker, 1963) and Das Phantom von Soho (1964).
Krzysztof Penderecki (23 November 1933 – 29 March 2020) Polish composer of Die Teufel von Loudun (The Devils of Loudun), a 1968-1975 opera based on an episode of mass demonic possession in 17th Century France. Yes, it took him seven years to write an opera. How long does it take YOU?
Hilary Heath, AKA Hilary Dwyer (6 May 1945 – 30 March 2020) British actress in 1968’s The Witchfinder General and 1969’s The Oblong Box, both with Vincent Price in Edgar Allen Poe inspired films, 1970’s Cry of the Banshee, also with Price, and in the 1970 version of Wuthering Heights, which starred future James Bond Timothy Dalton.
Vincent Marzello (July 4, 1951 – March 31, 2020) American actor in 1990’s The Witches.
Olan Montgomery (April 12, 1963 – April 4, 2020) An American actor known for playing a newsman for four episodes during the third season of the Netflix series, ‘Stranger Things’. He died of COVID-19.
Honor Blackman (22 August 1925 – 5 April 2020) British actress who made her mark in film history by portraying the redoubtable Pussy Galore in the third James Bond film, 1964’s Goldfinger, after having spent two seasons practicing her judo throws on bad guys in the BBC series, ‘The Avengers’. She co-starred with Christopher Lee and Nastassja Kinsky in 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, based on the Dennis Wheatley novel.
Lee Fierro (February 13, 1929 – April 5, 2020) American actress who played the mother of the little boy eaten by the shark in Jaws in 1975.
James Drury (April 18, 1934 – April 6, 2020) American actor who spent nine seasons starring in the ninety-minute television western, ‘The Virginian’. Before that, though, he was a crewman on the spaceship C-57D in the 1956 science fiction classic, Forbidden Planet, which was loosely based on Shakespeare’s marginally horrific last play, The Tempest, and did have folks killed by something called ‘the monster from the Id’. So, yes. It counts as horror, at least a little.
Allen Garfield (AKA Allen Goorwitz; November 22, 1939 – April 7, 2020) American actor who specialized in playing officious minor authority figures whose bark was always worse than their bite. Except, of course, when he starred in 1978’s Sketches of a Strangler, in which he put the bite on several actresses in a manual way. He was also in the 1996 remake of the classic French horror film, Diabolique, with Sharon Stone.
Mort Drucker (March 22, 1929 – April 9, 2020) For decades, Hollywood actors only knew they’d finally ‘arrived’ when this Mad Magazine artist and master caricaturist included them in one of his movie or television parodies. Drucker started out doing war comics for DC before signing on with EC, Mad’s publisher, shortly after they shut down their comic book line (see the Russ Cochran entry above) in favor of putting all their eggs in the Mad basket. The first one of his I remember seeing must have been in one of the reprint collections Mad issued a time or two a year. It was the parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho. To this day, there are frames from that film I see in my mind’s eye, not in cinematic black and white, but in Drucker’s distinctive style as he recreated them for the magazine.
Nobuhiko Obayashi (9 January 1938 – 10 April 2020) Japanese director, House (1977)
Margot Hartman (August 15, 1933 – April 11, 2020) American actress, Curse of the Living Corpse (1964). Janet Leigh should stay out of showers, and poor Margot should stay out of tubs for the same reason. How is a lady supposed to stay clean?
Danny Goldman (October 30, 1939 – April 12, 2020 American actor in 1974’s Young Frankenstein. He was the obnoxious medical student who drove Gene Wilder to stab himself in the thigh with a scalpel.
Joel M. Reed (December 29, 1933 – April 13, 2020) American schlock director of Blood Sucking Freaks (1976) and other exercises in questionable taste.
Brian Dennehy (July 9, 1938 – April 15, 2020) American tough guy actor, who discovered in First Blood that he wasn’t nearly as tough as Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. He didn’t do much better as the fire chief in 1977’s Ants!
Gene Deitch (August 8, 1924 – April 16, 2020) Czech-American animator on Where the Wild Things Are (1975), and creator of one of my childhood favorite cartoon series, ‘Tom Terrific’, who appeared periodically with his sidekick, Manfred the Wonder Dog, on the Captain Kangaroo show. Ah, the good old days.
Jacques Rosny (25 March 1939 – 18 April 2020) French actor who had a small role in Roman Polanski’s 1976 psychological horror film, The Tenant.
Hector Garrido (1928 – April 19, 2020) American illustrator who painted hundreds of paperback book covers in all genres, including horror.
Shirley Knight (July 5, 1936 – April 22, 2020) Oscar-nominated American actress whose only genre work I know of was an episode of ‘The Outer Limits’ in 1963, co-starring Martin Landau.
John Lafia (April 2, 1957 – April 29, 2020) American director of 1993’s Man’s Best Friend, one of several lethal dog movies from around that period
John Ericson (September 25, 1926 – May 3, 2020) German-American actor, the leading man and personification of the Great God Pan in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao in 1964, and the German officer whose invading force was driven off of Britain’s shores by empty suits of armor animated by apprentice witch Angela Lansbury in the 1971 Disney live-action feature, Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Richard Sala (June 2, 1954 – May 7, 2020) American comic book creator on 1995’s The Ghastly Ones and Other Fiendish Frolics from Manic D Press, and IDW’s 2005 Dracula, among others.
Marty Pasko (August 4, 1954 – May 10, 2020) Canadian comic book writer who primarily worked in the super-hero genre for DC and Marvel, but who began his career with a script each for Warren Publication’s Eerie and Vampirella magazines in the early ‘70s.
Jerry Stiller (June 8, 1927 – May 11, 2020) American comedian and actor, father of Ben. He appeared in one episode of ‘Tales from the Darkside’.
Frank Bolle (June 23, 1924 – May 12, 2020) Italian-American comic book artist who, among many other things, illustrated horror stories for Atlas Comics, the precursor to Marvel Comics, in 1956 and 1957.
Fred Willard (September 18, 1933 – May 15, 2020) American comedy actor, perhaps best known for his work in the series of Christopher Guest comedy films of the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with This is Spinal Tap. He did make a memorable appearance as the rascally realtor in the 1979 TV miniseries Salem’s Lot who gets caught with his pants down, both by the cuckolded husband and by vampire Kurt Barlow.
Cindy Butler (October 15, 1955 – May 26, 2020) American actress, The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) and Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues (1984). Neither one, to paraphrase Dr. Samuel Johnson, worth seeing, and even less worth going to see.
Richard Herd (September 26, 1932 – May 26, 2020) American character actor whose genre career began with 1980’s Schizoid and culminated in a videotaped performance of patriarch Roman Armitage in 2017’s Get Out, with a stop in the ‘Tales from the Crypt’ TV series along the way.
Anthony James (July 22, 1942 – May 26, 2020) Twitchy American actor, sort of the poor-man’s Anthony Perkins, who played the chauffeur in the 1976 classic Burnt Offerings with Bette Davis.
Dan van Husen (30 April 1945 – May 2020) German actor who, among many other minor horror roles, played the warden in 1979’s Nosferatu the Vampyre. If forced to choose between this among his films, or Killer Barbys vs Dracula from 2001, I think you know which way to jump.
Andrée Champagne (July 17, 1939 – June 6, 2020) Canadian actress, Playgirl Killer (1967). Not Canada’s finest hour.
Joanne Lara (June 3, 1952 – June 9, 2020) American actress notable, if that’s the word, for being the title character (‘Maria’) in an episode of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, and for playing a bit part in It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive.
Joe Johnson (June 25, 1957 – June 10, 2020) American actor, victim of a misapplied power tool in The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Dennis O’Neil (May 3, 1939 – June 11, 2020) American comic book writer who worked for both Marvel and DC but is best known for his long association with the artist Neal Adams on Green Lantern/Green Arrow and on the various Batman titles, many stories for which he included a supernatural element. ‘The Secret of the Waiting Graves’, the Batman story in Detective Comics 295 from January of 1970 concerns a couple whose time ultimately runs out after several hundred years, for example. O’Neil also worked with artist Steve Ditko on Beware… the Creeper in the 1960s and with Mike W. Kaluta on The Shadow in the early 1970s.
Ian Holm (12 September 1931 – 19 June 2020) Distinguished English actor who, long before he was Bilbo Baggins, played a murderous android in 1979’s Alien.
Philip Latham (17 January 1929 – 20 June 2020) English actor, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Joel Schumacher (August 29, 1939 – June 22, 2020) American director, notorious for taking the campy surrealism of Tim Burton’s two Batman films and twisting the franchise in his own two sequels into a surrealistic campiness that was a definite step down. Viewers can make up their own minds as to whether he redeemed himself by directing Gerard Butler in the film version of the Phantom of the Opera musical in 2004. This deponent sayeth not.
Joe Sinnott (October 16, 1926 – June 25, 2020) Legendary comic book artist, favored inker over the pencil work of King of the Comics Jack Kirby, and prolific illustrator of 1950s horror tales for the aforementioned Atlas Comics.
Stuart Cornfeld (November 13, 1952 – June 26, 2020) American producer, The Fly (1986)
Taryn Power (September 13, 1953 – June 26, 2020) American actress, daughter of Golden Age of Hollywood megastar Tyrone Power, Junior, and granddaughter of silent movie star Tyrone Power, Senior. She appeared in the Ray Harryhausen classic, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and not much else. This apple did, it seems, fall far from the tree.
James Holloway (d. June 28, 2020) American illustrator for many monster-laden Dungeons & Dragons related publications, including Dragon Magazine.
Johnny Mandel (November 23, 1925 – June 29, 2020) American music producer, orchestrator and conductor, Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)
Dan Hicks (July 19, 1951 – June 30, 2020) American actor, Evil Dead II (1987) and Darkman (1990).
Billy Tang (1951 – 7/2/20) Chinese director, Dial D for Demons (2000)
Yoon Sam-yook (May 25, 1937 – July 2, 2020) Korean screenwriter, Suddenly in the Dark (1981)
Ronald L. Schwary (May 23, 1944 – July 2, 2020) American producer, Meet Joe Black, the 1998 remake of the classic Death Takes a Holiday, previously filmed in 1934 and 1971.
P.H. Aykroyd (February 5, 1922 – July 4, 2020) Canadian father of Ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd, author of “A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts and Ghostbusters” with Angela Narth
Ennio Morricone (10 November 1928 – 6 July 2020) Italian soundtrack composer, The Thing (1982), as well as numerous gialli. The spaghetti western scores he is most famous for comprise a small percentage of his total, voluminous output. Tell me you didn’t just whistle the opening bars to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Go ahead. Not that I’ll believe you. Wah-WAH-wah…
Charlie Daniels (October 28, 1936 – July 6, 2020) American musician, The Devil Went Down to Georgia. The Devil should have known better than to bet a golden fiddle against the soul of a Saltine-American bluegrass champion. Stupid Devil.
Raymundo Capetillo (1 September 1943 – 12 July 2020) Mexican actor, Bestia Nocturna (1986).
Kelly Preston (October 13, 1962 – July 12, 2020) American actress, Christine (1983).
Sonia Darrin (June 16, 1924 – July 19, 2020) American actress best known for playing the snarky porno dealer in the 1946 Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall film noir classic, The Big Sleep, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. That was pretty much the pinnacle of her brief career, but she did manage to squeeze in a bit part in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943.
Jacqueline Scott (June 25, 1931 – July 23, 2020) American actress, Macabre (1958).
John Saxon (August 5, 1936 – July 25, 2020) American actor, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). I had no idea he was living maybe twenty miles from me when he passed away. I’m not sure what I would have done had I known, but I’d like to think if I’d run into him at some point, I might’ve asked to shake the hand of a man who had sparred with Bruce Lee. That’s something not a whole lot of folks can say they’ve done.
Dame Olivia de Havilland (July 1, 1916 – July 26, 2020) British actress born in Japan, the woman no less an expert on the topic of feminine pulchritude than Errol Flynn always considered ‘the one that got away’. They made some damn good movies together, starting with 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, far and away the best film version of that legend. Alas, Errol died in 1959, and a few years later Olivia joined the brigade of past-their-prime actresses in the psychological horror film fad of the early 1960s. Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte was the 1964 entry in that sweepstakes, and it’s a doozy, with Bette Davis, Bruce Dern, Mary Astor, Joseph Cotten and Agnes Morehead along for the ride.
Jan Skopeček (19 September 1925 – 27 July 2020) Czech actor, The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981)
Gianrico Tedeschi (20 April 1920 – 27 July 2020) Italian actor, Frankenstein: Italian Style (1975) and Dr. Jekyll Likes Them Hot (1979).
Alan Parker (14 February 1944 – 31 July 2020) English director, Angel Heart (1987), starring Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro as the Devil, based on the novel by William Hjortsberg.
Wilford Brimley (September 27, 1934 – August 1, 2020) American actor and commercial spokesman, owner of one of the few mustaches more impressive than mine, and one of the poor fools isolated at the top of the world with an interplanetary shapeshifter in 1982’s second version of The Thing. Okay, the 1951 original scared the hell out of me when I was eight and caught it on Night Owl Theater early on a Saturday morning, but I totally get why many folks consider John Carpenter’s remake of John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story ‘Who Goes There?’ to be superior. I don’t agree, but I don’t totally disagree. Either way, Brimley’s performance is suitably creepy, albeit brief.
Daisy Coleman (March 30, 1997 – August 4, 2020) American actress and advocate for her fellow victims of sexual violence, she made Texas Death Trippin’ in 2019 before committing suicide a year later. Regardless of the film’s quality, it’s such a terrible waste of a human life and potential that I find the situation far more horrific than the film could possibly be. People suck.
Ben Cross (16 December 1947 – 18 August 2020) English actor who essayed the role of Barnabas Collins in the revival of the TV classic, Dark Shadows, in 1991. He also appeared in an episode of HBO’s ‘Tales from the Crypt’, and played another vampire in 1989’s Nightlife opposite Maryam d’Abo.
Lori Nelson (August 15, 1933 – August 23, 2020) American actress, Revenge of the Creature (1955). Clint Eastwood has a bit part as a marginally competent lab assistant. Lori gets carried off into the Florida swamps by the escaped Gillman in this first sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, until she’s rescued by leading man and former Mr. Shirley Temple John Agar. Like the first one, this is also in 3-D.
Joe Ruby (March 30, 1933 – August 26, 2020) American television producer and co-creator of Scooby-Doo. Darn those meddling kids!
Peter Licassi (April 1, 1959 – August 27, 2020) Actor, Killer Clowns from Outer Space (1988)
Sidney Noel Rideau (December 25, 1929 – August 27, 2020) New Orleans TV host of ‘House of Shock’ (Dr. Morgus).
Bob Fujitani (October 15, 1921 – September 6, 2020) American comic book artist of Irish-Japanese ancestry. He illustrated numerous stories in all genres for a variety of publishers in the 1940s, including some horror. He had a long run on the peripherally horrific series, The Hangman. The Hangman appeared in MLJ’s Pep Comics as well as in his own title. MLJ was the original name of the publisher now called Archie Comics, by the way.
Dame Diana Rigg (20 July 1938 – 10 September 2020) British actress who, like Honor Blackman, graduated from female lead of the BBC’s ‘The Avengers’ to Bond Girl status in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. Unlike Blackman, she got 007 (George Lazenby) to put a ring on it. Too bad arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld machine-gunned her out of the British spy’s life before the wedding night. She went on to play the daughter of crazed Shakespearean actor Vincent Price in 1973’s Theatre of Blood, probably the best specifically Vincent Price movie ever. Partisans of the Dr. Phibes films are free to disagree, but they’re still wrong.
Barbara Jefford (26 July 1930 – 12 September 2020) British actress who manages to get herself garroted in her wheelchair in The Ninth Gate (1999). How rude!
Michael Chapman (November 21, 1935 – September 20, 2020) American cinematographer, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). The second version of the classic Jack Finney story first published in Collier’s Weekly magazine in the 1950s. The tale of how I and two friends saw this film at the old Tennessee Theater in downtown Nashville is the stuff of legend, and if you and I ever run in to one another in a bar or pub somewhere, and you buy me a few drinks, I will tell you all about it. The saga involves a 1956 Chevy, a double-boom wrecker and a multiple Hugo Award winning science fiction author, so I don’t think I’m too out of line in assuming that you’ll be obliged to admit in advance that it’s worth the price of a few drinks to be told. If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize.
Ron Cobb (September 21, 1937 – September 21, 2020) American production designer and concept artist, Alien (1979). And what a great job he did! I’ve got to tell you folks, I saw this film the first night of its release, and I was the only person in the audience who knew about the chest-burster scene. You have not lived until you’ve been in a movie theater with four hundred strangers going absolutely berserk over what’s happening to John Hurt, while you’re sitting back and laughing at the whole bloody thing.
Xavier Loyá (December 31, 1934 – September 22, 2020) Mexican actor, one of the partygoers trapped in the apres-opera drawing room in the Luis Buñuel classic, The Exterminating Angel (1962). He was also in Santo vs the Vampire Women the same year. A very versatile fellow, apparently.
Juliette Gréco (7 February 1927 – 23 September 2020) French actress, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (1950).
Yūko Takeuchi (April 1, 1980 – September 27, 2020) Japanese actress, Ringu (1998).
Maud Hansson (5 December 1937 – 1 October 2020) The Swedish actress appeared as a witch in the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal.
Armelia McQueen (January 6, 1952 – October 3, 2020) American actress, Ghost (1990).
Henryk Boukolowski (January 11, 1937 – October 4, 2020) Polish actor in the 1972 short film, Beczka Amontillado, based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, ‘A Cask of Amontillado’. For the love of God, Montressor!
Margaret Nolan (29 October 1943 – 5 October 2020) English actress, went from a bit part in 1964’s Goldfinger with Sean Connery to a bit part in 1968’s Witchfinder General with Vincent Price. Not exactly a step up, but neither was it a step down. Call it a lateral move.
Osvaldo Ruggieri (January 8, 1928 – October 10, 2020) Italian actor, Werewolf Woman (1976).
Rhonda Fleming (8/10/23-10/14/20) Zaftig American actress known as the Queen of Technicolor for how the process loved her red hair, green eyes and fair skin. She made mostly westerns and a few films noir, as well as the first (and best) version of The Spiral Staircase in 1946, based on the novel by Ethel Lina White. She gets her pretty neck wrung by serial killer George Brent well before the denouement. Am I beginning to sense a theme here?
Spencer Davis (17 July 1939 – 19 October 2020) Welsh musician and actor. Way up there, near the top of this list, I mentioned The Ghost Goes Gear. Here it is again. See the previous entry. Davis discovered his lead singer, Steve Winwood, later of Traffic, when the fourteen-year-old was playing jazz in a club in Birmingham, England. The Spencer Davis Group made some very good records. Movies, not so much. Unlike Herman’s Hermits, who made three films, they had the good sense to quit when they weren’t too far behind.
Gianni Dei (21 December 1940 – 19 October 2020) Italian actor, Patrick Still Lives (1980).
Wojciech Pszoniak (2 May 1942 – 19 October 2020) Polish actor, The Devil (1972).
Marge Champion (September 2, 1919 – October 21, 2020) American dancer who, with her husband, Gower, was perpetually prominent in the MGM musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and who modeled for Walt Disney on his feature films, Snow White & the Seven Dwarves (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940). Not specifically for characters in the scary parts of those pictures, but close enough for inclusion here.
Richard A. Lupoff (February 21, 1935 – October 22, 2020) American speculative fiction author and genre historian. I can’t say that knew Dick Lupoff, although he was a member of a couple of Yahoo groups I belonged to when that was still a thing. We might have commented on the same threads, I don’t recall. I wish I had interacted more with him when I had the chance, for he was a treasure. He was one of the editors and contributors to both All in Color for a Dime and The Comic Book Book, two of the seminal histories of one of the crucial media by which our genre has been disseminated, and both of which volumes included important chapters regarding horror in the comic books. Future columns on horror comics will no doubt contain information gleaned from one or the other of those two volumes.
Jacques Godin (September 14, 1930 – October 26, 2020) Canadian actor, The Pyx (1973) with Karen Black and Christopher Plummer.
Ricardo Blume (August 16, 1933 – October 30, 2020) Peruvian actor, Sobrenatural (All of Them Witches, 1996)
Sean Connery (25 August 1930 – 31 October 2020) Scottish actor. There is a no-doubt apocryphal story that Connery was contacted when Gordon Scott decided to hang up his loincloth and retire as the cinematic Tarzan. Connery had played one of the villains in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure in 1959, Scott’s penultimate appearance in the series. Sean had done such a good job that he was supposedly asked if he’d be willing to don the loincloth himself. According to legend, he told Tarzan producer Sy Weintraub that he was committed to star in some spy picture, and that once that was finished, he’d consider the offer to play the Lord of the Jungle. As everyone knows, Connery went on to play James Bond another six times after Dr. No, won an Oscar for The Untouchables in 1987 and never got around to playing the apeman. Weintraub was forced to go with the villain from Scott’s last Tarzan picture, Jock Mahoney, as his next jungle lord. The two pictures Mahoney starred in are considered among the best of the Tarzan films. A pity Connery got so tied up with Bond. He might have made something of himself, had he dispensed with the vodka martinis, Aston-Martins and Bond Babes, doffed his tuxedo and run off into the jungle wearing a scrap of deerskin instead. Ah, well. Fortunately for horror fans, he had already appeared in the Disney live-action Halloween staple, Darby O’Gill & the Little People, in 1959, as scary a picture as the Mouse Factory ever produced.
Rachel Caine (April 27, 1962 – November 1, 2020) Author of, among other works, the Morganville Vampire series of young adult novels.
Elsa Raven (September 21, 1929 – November 2, 2020) American actress, The Amityville Horror (1979).
John Fraser (18 March 1931 – 6 November 2020) Scottish actor in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), with Catherine Deneuve.
Ken Jones (d. November 6, 2020) American actor, Phantasm (1979).
Sven Wollter (11 January 1934 – 10 November 2020) Swedish actor, The 13th Warrior (1999).
Philip Voss (20 August 1936 – 13 November 2020) English actor, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974). Voss’s last work was as Mason in the British TV series, ‘Vicious’, with Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Derek Jacoby.
Daria Nicolodi (19 June 1950 – 26 November 2020) Italian actress, Dario Argento’s Profundo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975) and Paganini Horror (1989).
David Prowse (7/1/35-11/28/20) English bodybuilder and actor. Yes, yes we all know about Darth Vader, but everyone eulogizing Prowse seems to have forgotten that he also played the monster in two Hammer films, The Horror of Frankenstein in 1970 and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell in 1974. And in 1980, he was in Nashville for a Star Wars convention I attended. I was standing in the back of one of those big hotel ballrooms, in front of a pair of double doors, listening to Peter Mayhew talk about being Chewbacca. I was twenty-two years old, six-foot-one, 210 solid pounds, young and impressive and in the best shape of my life, with all my teeth and a lot more wavy, blond hair than I possess now. I frequently enjoyed the company of attractive ladies, and they seemed to enjoy my company, as well. I was feeling, in other words, pretty good about myself.
And then, something huge moved into the room behind me. It was like being in the gravity well of a small planet. I turned and looked up and up and up at David Prowse, not in the Vader costume, but a head taller and a twice as wide across the shoulders as me on my best day. I felt very, very small and insignificant, indeed. We smiled and nodded, and then he was gone. I never spoke to him at that convention. I’m not sure I would have been able to.
The weekend was not ruined for me, I’m glad to say. That evening turned out well. Remember those drinks you were going to buy me? Add a few more, and you’ll hear the epic saga of a gold-plated droid, an AMC Hornet, and a crimson crustacean.
Richard Corben (10/1/40-12/2/20) American comic book artist. I first noticed his distinctive air-brushed style in the black and white Warren magazines, Creepy and Eerie, around 1970. His best-known work was probably in the Heavy Metal magazine in the late 1970s, for which he created the perpetually naked, bald and musclebound hero, Den. Den’s origin story was adapted to animated form in the Heavy Metal movie in 1981. He also did a lot of horror genre work for underground publishers Last Gasp and Rip Off Press.
André Gagnon (2 August 1936 – 3 December 2020) Canadian soundtrack composer, Phobia (1980)
Eduardo Galvão (April 19, 1962 – December 7, 2020) Brazilian actor, appeared in one episode of the 2002 television series ‘O Beijo do Vampiro’ (A Vampire’s Kiss).
Barbara Windsor (6 August 1937 – 10 December 2020) English actress, played Jack the Ripper’s second victim Annie Chapman in 1965’s A Study in Terror. The poor lass was well and truly dismembered before Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) could put a stop to Jack’s spree of spontaneous vivisection.
Hanna Stankówna (4 May 1938 – 14 December 2020) Polish stage and screen actress from the lovely city of Posnan, where my wife and I enjoyed a delightful lunch and some damn good beer some years ago. Her only genre role, as far as I can tell given my non-existent ability to decipher titles or plot synopses in her native language, was Lokis. Rekopis profesora Wittembacha (Lokis, the Manuscript of Professor Wittembach), from 1970.
Peter Lamont (12 November 1929 – 18 December 2020) British art director and production designer, Aliens (1986), as well as a slew of James Bond films.
Jiří Hálek (9/10/1930-12/18/2020) Czech actor, The Cremator (1969).
David Giler (January 10, 1943 – December 19, 2020) American film producer & screenwriter, Alien (1979).
Pero Kvrgić (4 March 1927 − 23 December 2020) Croatian actor, Nausikaya (1995).
Guy N. Smith (21 November 1939 – 24 December 2020) Prolific British horror author.
Josefina Echánove (September 29, 1927 or July 21, 1928 – December 29, 2020) Mexican actress, Amityville 3-D (1983).
Corrado Olmi (24 October 1926 – 29 December 2020) Italian actor in the dark comedy The Devil in Love (1966) and in the classic Giallo, The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971).
Dawn Wells (October 18, 1938 – December 30, 2020) American actress. Like most families in the 1960s, we only had one television. While my parents were pretty indulgent as far as allowing my brother and I, and later our sisters, to watch whatever we wanted to, Dad did draw the line a few times. One of those instances was whenever Gilligan’s Island came on. He considered it the dumbest show ever, and objectively, at this considerable temporal remove, it’s only the existence of My Mother, the Car that argues very much against that assessment. So it was that I rarely watched it in first run. However, it ran, and still runs, in syndication, so I caught up with it as I raced into puberty in the early 1970s. And I was Team Ginger, all the way. I never got why anyone would prefer Mary Ann, and still don’t. I didn’t dislike her. As a character, I thought she was fine. As fine as the material allowed, anyhow. She seemed very sweet, and she was pretty in a cornfed sort of way, but for pure prurient interest, it was Ginger for whom I lusted. Oddly, in the case of WKRP in Cincinnati, I’m all about Bailey instead of Jennifer, which is the exact opposite dynamic. Wonder why that is?
Never mind. When Dawn Wells died, yesterday as I write this, from COVID-19, I was shocked and more than a little saddened. She lived in my hometown of Nashville for some years, and lent her support to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, a worthy cause if there ever was one. Ginger is the last surviving castaway, and that makes me feel more than a little old. Dawn’s only forays into horror were a couple of truly wretched B-flicks, The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) and Return to Boggy Creek (1977). Probably just as well she didn’t make any more, but I’m glad there were enough to include her in this list, even if she never was the object of my desire.
Robert Hossein (30 December 1927 – 31 December 2020) French writer, director and actor, The Wax Mask (AKA Maschera di Cera, 1997)
And there it is. Hopefully, the list I compile at the end of 2021 will be shorter. ‘Twould be a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.
They tell me this is Freaky Foodie Month here at HorrorAddicts.net, so I’ve wandered down into the kitchen area of the basement laboratory and cobbled together a tasty little treat that I hope will satisfy the palate of even the most discriminating connoisseur de frissons. And yes, there will be dessert. I call this offering:
Submitted for Your Approval – A Man with No Upper Lip
Rod Serling got his start as a writer by winning a radio contest, after spending a few years in the Pacific Theater jumping out of airplanes in order to expedite the extermination of Japanese soldiers. He gradually worked his way up to the new medium of television in time for what is considered its Golden Age, a period when every evening brought Great Dramas into the homes of millions of Americans. Serling wrote his fair share of those Great Dramas, including Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight. Both were later made into movies and are considered high points of that Golden Age.
This was all heady stuff for a decorated war veteran and one of early television’s cadre of angry young men, but Serling wanted more. He yearned for a vessel into which he could pour his social concerns about censorship, racism, and war, and maybe exorcise the psychological demons left over from his military service. Alas, comfortable and complacent Middle America wasn’t ready to have its collective face shoved into its sins, and so a more allegorical approach was called for.
The Twilight Zone premiered on October 2, 1959. For five years, Serling, along with collaborators Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, created a series of little morality plays couched in the more palatable tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror tales. And then, it was gone, cancelled by the suits, only to reappear in the realm of perpetual syndication, where it lives on even today. Sixties television devolved into an endless parade of sitcoms, many of them with a supernatural bent; westerns; shoot-em-up action dramas; variety shows; spoofs of comic books and spy movies; and body counts from the Vietnam War on the evening news.
Like the War, the Sixties slopped over into the next decade. Popular music continued on much as before, not yet sullied by the arrival of disco. The usual array of genres persisted on television. And the news was still just as depressing as ever. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Serling spent the second half of the Sixties much as he had the Fifties, writing dramas for a medium that had turned out to be too small for him. He wrote a successful teleplay about an airline high-jacking, and an adaptation of A Christmas Carol that was as weighted towards modern concerns as the original story was towards the social ills of the Victorian Era. He created a high-brow western series called The Loner that only lasted one season, and lent his distinctive voice and stiff-upper-lip visage to a number of commercials.
At the end of the decade, he came up with a made-for-TV movie superficially similar to his last great success. Night Gallery was an anthology of three spooky stories, more horror-based than Twilight Zone ever was. Serling introduced each tale by revealing a painting inspired by it. Hence, the ‘gallery’ part of the title. The middle section, Eyes, starring Joan Crawford, was directed by Steven Spielberg. It was his first professional media job, and very nearly her last. Her final performance came a few years later in Night Gallery’s spin-off series, The Sixth Sense. More on that, and her, and him later in this space. Stay tuned!
Night Gallery was picked up for regular broadcast in 1971, one of a set of four titles that rotated weekly episodes as part of what was called a wheel series. The other show that survived Four in One’s only season was the fish-out-of-water detective show McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver. McCloud moved over into another wheel series with two other long-running mysteries, Columbo and McMillan and Wife. Night Gallery went into regular production as a weekly program. Win for Serling!
But not quite as much as before. More of the same, but less, I’m afraid. This is not to say that Night Gallery wasn’t a good program; it was. It just wasn’t The Twilight Zone. But then, what was? Not even a major motion picture and a couple of revival series have been able to recapture that particular lightning-bolt-in-a-bottle.
It might have helped had Serling been able to exert more creative control than he was allowed, but that was not to be. Still, Night Gallery is not a series to be brushed aside without due consideration. It adapted some of the great stories in the genre, including works by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, Algernon Blackwood and Robert Bloch, and by Serling’s old pal from Twilight Zone days, Richard Matheson.
Christianna Brand is not a name well-known to horror enthusiasts, I suspect. She was a mystery writer of some renown, but she only wrote enough horror tales to fill one collection, What Dread Hand?, published in 1968. One of the yarns therein, ‘The Sins of the Fathers’, first appeared, as far as I have been able to ascertain, in The Fifth Pan Book of Horror Stories. It was edited by Herbert van Thal four years previously. If you’re not familiar with this delightful series of anthologies, I urge you to haunt whatever used paperback vendors you have available to you and track down as many editions as you can get your talons into. I shall have more to say later on regarding the estimable Mijnheer van Thal, but for now, the dish upon the table is getting cold. And a little, um, congealed.
Sin eating is an old practice found in Wales and those English counties bordering Wales, in which a poor person would be hired for a nominal sum to dine upon bread and ale placed atop the corpse of a recently deceased sinner as it lay in state. The sins of the late reprobate would transfer, through the bread and ale, to the soul of the diner, preventing the lamented one from wandering the Earth as a vengeful spirit. The question remains, what of the sins of the sin eater, both original, and those acquired through gustation? What keeps that worthy in his grave? Therein lies the tale.
‘Sins of the Father’ was one of two stories presented in the second episode of Night Gallery’s second season, airing on February 23, 1972. It starred, among others, Barbara Steele, she of the vast, magnetizing eyes long familiar to horror aficionados from her performances in such classic terror films as Black Sunday, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Ghost. Frequent Oscar nominee and future winner Geraldine Page was along for the bumpy ride, as well, along with soon-to-be John-Boy Walton Richard Thomas, former Batman butler Alan Napier, and Michael Dunn, who had just recently completed a long run as master villain Dr. Miguelito Loveless on the classic spy-western show, The Wild Wild West.
Dunn scours the Welsh countryside on half of his master, who lies three days dead, covered in a feast of lamb and cakes and cheeses. The servant is in search of a sin eater, one who has not already succumbed to the plague and famine ravaging the land. With time running out, he finds his last option too sick with disease and hunger to travel the distance, but that sin eater has a son. The boy absconds with the food without taking on the sins of the dead man, but when he returns home, finds his own father dead. Where are that sin eater’s sins to go, but into the starving mouth of the next one in line?
Not so horrifying in the brief description, perhaps, but like any fine meal, there’s so much more in the presentation. Even better, every name mentioned above has a genre pedigree that dates back, in some cases, into the silent era. Lots of material for future installments.
I did mention dessert, yes? Well, Stanley Ellin is another mystery writer of historical significance who dabbled in the macabre. His first published short story, ‘Specialty of the House’, is one of those that really sticks to the ribs, so to speak. A restaurant that caters to a very particular clientele offers an occasional specialty that only the best customers get to sample, or participate in the preparation thereof. Creepiness is on the menu, served with healthy dollop of frisson on the side.
‘Specialty of the House’ has been reprinted in dozens of periodicals, collections and anthologies since it was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in the May, 1948 issue. It was adapted to television during the fifth season of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents show and broadcast on December 13, 1959, and on the revival of that series on March 21, 1987. Robert Morley, whose turn upon the spit in Theatre of Blood also involves food, stars. That classic film deserves its own lengthy consideration, rather than a superficial glossing over here, so more on that later.
The first one is available for viewing here:
In the early Seventies, Vincent Price was among several stars who were part of an attempted revival of old-time radio in the modern era. His BBC program, The Price of Fear, featured an adaptation of the yarn on April 13th, 1974. It can be found on You Tube or in the Internet Archives. Worth seeking out!
So, there it is. Hope you enjoyed my little concoction. Would you like an aperitif? A little libation to wash it all down with? Don’t worry, there will be more coming, perhaps sooner than you think. Stay blood-thirsty, my friends. And, as always –
I would encourage the populace, if possible, to at least take a look at the recent Netflix series, Ratched. It will help if you’re familiar with the 1975 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the one that took home a slew of Oscars for that year, the one in which the television series’ title character was the villain, but that’s not essential. Ratched is a beautifully mounted, albeit severely flawed work, and worth seeing if only for the sumptuous set design. Indeed, every frame looks like a photograph from a 1947 issue of Architectural Digest or some similar slick magazine of its type. The costumes could be out of Vanity Fair, the automobiles from Road & Track. It is gorgeous in its every visual element and blessed with a slightly languid pace that allows the eye to gorge itself at leisure on all that gorgeosity.
While I have several issues with the writing (cardboard and occasionally inconsistent characters, cliched situations, predictable plot points), I cannot fault the technical prowess of those who designed the visuals, or, indeed, the audio. The incidental music is eerily reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s score from the 1962 film, Cape Fear, as well as Elmer Bernstein’s score for the 1991 remake. One day, I will discuss both film versions of that story in this space, and the music from each, but today I want to talk about the title music from Ratched, for it touches upon one of my passions.
Yes, I am a Baby Boomer, a member of that much maligned, fairly or unfairly, generation that for all its flaws did indeed spawn the best popular music of the past century. And, yes, I grew up a fan of, among others, the Beatles, the band whose massive output of incredible music in the space of less than a decade was not only the ne plus ultra of its time but the sine qua non of all popular music since. But they and the rest of the 1960s artists were not my first musical love.
That would be classical music. Before the Fab Four showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show on that momentous night in February of 1964, I had already begun to sample my father’s record collection. The first piece of music I remember being enraptured by was Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges. I had no idea at the time what that title meant, for although I was able to operate a turntable at that early age, I had not yet learned to read beyond a very superficial level. In fact, I suspect that it was to decipher the tiny print on the back of all those record sleeves that I set about becoming literate so assiduously at such a tender age.
I still love classical music. It occupies a significant portion of my listening time. I don’t know squat about music theory, but I know what I like. And in the years since I discovered the wonders on those ancient LPs, most of which are now in my possession, new discoveries of what I like have regularly occurred with delightful frequency.
I think I must have been about thirteen or fourteen when I first encountered the work of Camille Saint-Saëns, or, rather, a portion of one of his works. A radio station in or near Nashville began to broadcast episodes of the Shadow radio show from the late 1930s, the ones starring Orson Welles. The theme music was eerie and compelling, drawing the listener into the outré adventures of He Who Had the Power to Cloud Men’s Minds. No one I knew could tell me what that strange tune was. Fortunately, this was in the early years of a new cultural phenomenon, nostalgia, and every trip to the bookstore revealed a new volume on some aspect of the cultural ephemera of past decades, including radio. I knew of radio solely as a delivery system for current music, but as my dad told me at the time, it was in his youth the primary source of free entertainment in the home – musical, comedic, dramatic. Frightening.
More on that later. I think it was in a paperback edition of Jim Harmon’s 1967 book, The Great Radio Heroes, that I learned the provenance of that snippet of strange music. It turned out to be the middle section of a symphonic poem by Saint-Saëns, Omphale’s Spinning Wheel. Once I knew that, I began to search for more music by this new composer I’d discovered.
Skip years, indeed, decades ahead, and I’d just settled myself into my favorite spot on the couch to watch the first episode of Ratched. At that moment, my wife of nearly forty years came in, and I surrendered that spot, because when Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. It’s okay. The seat I gave up is slightly off-center to the TV mounted on the wall opposite, and the spot I almost always wind up in has a more straight-on view. Yeah. That’s the ticket.
For some reason, the subtitle function was turned on, which was fine. I watch a lot of films in languages I don’t understand, and I heartily despise dubbing. Nothing ruins the rhythm of a film than the dialogue being out of sync with the actors’ expressions and mouth movements. Give me subtitles, every time. So, I’m used to them, and made no particular effort to turn them off.
No issues with the first episode, although my lovely bride thought it moved a tad slowly. There was no title sequence that time out, the credits rolling at the end. And for just over five minutes, there was no such thing in the second episode.
And then, there was. I immediately recognized the music playing, although the first bit of it had been lopped off. It was Saint-Saëns’ 1874 tone poem Danse Macabre, a piece I play heavily around Halloween, for it is spooky and creepy and laden with dire forebodings.
And then, I noticed the subtitle that popped up as soon as the discordant violin screeched out its first few notes.[haunting classical music playing]
Say, what? Haunting classical music? Haunting classical music?!?!?!? Does no one at Netflix have access to a decent music library? This piece has a name, a title that has been well-known for one hundred and forty-six years. That’s as bad as people calling the tango Al Pacino danced with Gabrielle Anwar in Scent of a Woman ‘the tango from Scent of a Woman’, as if that’s its title. It’s not. It’s called Por Una Cabeza, and it’s by Carlos Gardel, a significant composer of Latin music in the first half of the 20th Century. It’s not quite as bad as pronouncing Porsche as a one-syllable name, but still, come on! Is it all that much trouble to identify a major piece of music by its actual name?
Ahem. Sorry ‘bout that.
Danse Macabre was based on a Late Medieval allegorical theme of death as the one truly universal reality, and its application in a variety of artistic expressions. Paintings, frescoes and woodcuts depicting souls of all financial stations and every societal stratum dancing their ways along to the grave accompanied by decomposing corpses and animated skeletons were all the rage in the waning decades of the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance.
I know most folks think of the term ‘classical music’ as encompassing all that stuff you had to sit through during school field trips to the local symphony hall, but for the cognoscenti, classical refers to the music of roughly the 18th Century, composed by folks like Mozart and Haydn in an organically structured and sometimes excessively ornamental style that reflected the artistic sensibilities of the concurrent Rococo period in art and architecture. During the preceding century, more-or-less, both art and architecture on one hand and music on the other were done in what was known as Baroque style, which was also overly ornamented but with a somewhat more constrained, almost geometrical structure. Kind of. That’s very much a Reader’s Digest Condensed version of things, but not, I hope, totally off the mark.
The 19th Century in music was dominated by the Romantic period, and Saint-Saëns was very much a Romantic composer. That word does not mean, as applied to the music of its time, what you think it does, just as an opera comique is not necessarily funny. Romantic in relation to the music of composers from Schubert and Beethoven in the early 19th Century to Dvorak and Verdi near the end of the century, and even beyond with Rachmaninoff and Ravel, was intended to produce within the listener a sort of naturalistic evocation of emotions, so that the music inspired more than merely an aesthetic response. It is no accident that the Romantic period in music coincided in its later decades with Impressionism in painting. The intended reaction from the consumer was the same in both areas, an empathic connection with the artist through the medium.
And Danse Macabre did produce an emotional reaction from early critics, indeed. It was not received well at first, as it was considered to be a source of anxiety for those who heard it. As I stated before, I know little about music theory, but I have been given to understand that there are certain key signatures that lend themselves particularly well to certain types of music, and even the emotions those pieces are meant to convey. According to what I have read on the subject, G Minor is one of those keys that tends to invoke dread and angst, and Danse Macabre is in that key. I’m going to go ahead and assume my informant was correct, for it does put the nerves on edge.
Listen to it throughout that title sequence in Ratched, when and if you’re able to watch it, and see if it doesn’t augment the show’s overall feeling of fearful expectation, even more so perhaps than the story warrants. Then, listen to it in its entirety.
Then, please don’t tell me you felt nothing from that – no frisson, as it were. I hope you do. I might just worry about you if not, just a little.
Also, rest assured I won’t leave you hanging regarding all the possibly unfamiliar references above. I will, one of these days, wax poetic on horror as it was used in old time radio programs and operas, comique and otherwise, as well as by other composers, artists, and even architects. I might even explain just what is meant by a ‘slick magazine’, translate the Latin phrases I love tossing around like confetti, and reveal from what major genre work I lifted the neologism ‘gorgeosity’. Stay tuned.
On a regular basis when we were kids, my brother and I were shipped off from Nashville to visit our grandmothers and cousins for a few weeks every summer so our parents could get a well-deserved rest from our shenanigans. Today, I suspect that would be considered child abuse at best, given that we were ferried by either car or train to a small town in Northern Alabama in the days before the pervasive hum and whir of air conditioning could be heard everywhere.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember the heat being all that oppressive. There were lots of electric fans, and open windows, and sleeping in upstairs bedrooms under thin sheets, while the distant sound of a train whistle carried us away with it into slumberland after long discussions about girls and Auburn football and whether or not it were possible to tip one of my uncle’s Black Angus bulls. It’s not, by the way, and given how much at least one of them resented the attempt, it’s a wonder any of us are still alive.
Even better, for the voracious consumer of popular culture that I was even at the tender age of eleven, was that a marvelous new invention did arrive in Athens about 1969, one that would not make it to Nashville for another sixteen years. Nowadays, cable television is almost quaint, but in those halcyon days of three channels, it was a magic carpet ride that carried me for that brief, hot period beyond the Lawrence Welk schmaltz and Mike Douglas talking about God knows what with people you’d never heard of and soap operas that for some reason didn’t feature vampires, and all the other adult programming that pervaded the local airwaves of the tiny town to which we were remanded into durance vile for those few weeks.
I’m exaggerating, of course. We had lots of fun with the cousins, and occasionally with the kids who went to the Baptist and Methodist churches in which our grandmothers were virtually matriarchic figures. But there are times when you just want to turn on the TV, and it was in Athens that I first encountered What Lay Beyond.
Athens is about halfway between Nashville to the north and Birmingham to the south, and twenty miles west of Huntsville, which at the time had, I believe, one television station. If the weather conditions were just right, you could almost pick up a Nashville station and maybe two Birmingham stations, but you couldn’t count on it. Which is exactly why the first rudimentary cable system I encountered was in tiny Athens. Its original purpose was apparently to bring those distant network affiliates (and their commercials) out into the hinterlands.
I have no idea at this late date which of the ten buttons on my grandmother’s cable box I pressed to find the old horror pictures I was already enamored of, but I sure figured it out at the time. A few days into our enforced vacation, I had started missing the daily after-school movie, the Big Show on Channel Five from which I normally got my fix. When I discovered something close enough to it to serve in a pinch, I latched on to it. I remember seeing old-time movie star Jon Hall stomping around in a rubber suit in Monster in the Surf for the first time on whatever channel it was, along with the big-headed BEMs from Invasion of the Saucer Men and a string of pictures that were rather clumsily dubbed into English and with the credits in Spanish.
I had never seen Mexican horror movies before. The Big Show was full of Universal monsters and Hammer horrors and Japanese behemoths stomping model cities flat, but nothing like this new thing I’d found. I don’t recall any specific titles from that summer more than fifty years ago, but I do remember that they were fun, and spooky, and some of them starred masked wrestlers. I was a big fan at that age of the local wrestlers who popped up on TV back home, Jacky Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto and that crowd, so I gleefully absorbed the adventures of Santo and the Blue Devil as they battled a variety of monsters and mad scientists that summer, while my grandmother was off working at the local newspaper where she was the society editor. I’m sure she would have disapproved, had she known.
But isn’t that the best part?
The Mexican horror movies weren’t there on her cable box the next time I visited Athens. It was years before I saw any of them again. It took the internet to bring them back into view, and while I understand the draw those specific films must have had on my eleven year old mind, this much older geezer is looking for something a little more sophisticated. And, just as one should never judge classic North American films by, say, the Bowery Boys, one should look for a higher level of fright-inducing Mexican cinematics with an expectation that one would find it.
I will admit that, despite my early exposure to Mexican films, I am not yet as conversant with the national oeuvre as I am with, say, French or Japanese filmmaking. I suppose it does take a while to get all the way around the world and back close to home again in exploring world cinema, even with the wonders available online. I am of course familiar with the great films made by Spanish ex-patriot Luis Buñuel during his time in Mexico from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. The Exterminating Angel is the closest I can think of to Buñuel having made a genre film, but I’m not really sure it can be classified as a horror film. I might take a gander at it in this space down the road, anyhow, but for now, let’s look, as we would pretty much have to in regards to North American horror films, at the middle range of overall cinematic quality.
And there it is that we find a number of quite good Mexican horror films in the early 1960s, on a level with anything being done in the genre by Hollywood filmmakers such as Roger Corman or William Castle, if not, in some cases, better. (Notice how nimbly I wriggled out of including Psycho in that category? Hitchcock was a director on a par with Buñuel, and like the Spaniard, not really a horror director, per se, no matter how he might have dabbled in its pleasures.)
I will speak in future of Messers Corman and Castle. For now, let’s speak of la Llorona.
The Weeping Woman, in English. An old Mexican folktale about an abandoned mother who avenges the betrayal of her unfaithful husband/lover by murdering their children. She regrets her act when denied entry into Heaven, and is fated to roam the Earth in search of her dead children. Since they are beyond her reach, she seeks to replace them with the children of other mothers, with dire results all around. It’s one of those cautionary tales meant to keep the younguns of Mesoamerica in line. I have no data as to how well it works. What I do have is some Mexican-made films I want to have us all take a look at.
I’m not in this instance concerned with the numerous recent North American and Mesoamerican cinematic examinations, of varying quality, of the ancient legend. And by recent, I should point out that I mean anything since about 1980. When you get to my age, that’s when the cut-off date between old and new falls. Hell, I’m so old, cougars are barely legal.
Can I get a rimshot? No? Oh, well. Never mind.
I want to examine in this space three of the earliest films that were constructed around this legend – 1933’s La Llorona, 1960’s La Llorona, and 1963’s The Curse of the Crying Woman. There is one from 1947 I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of yet, La Herencia de la Llorona, but I hope to correct that oversight in the very near future. I expect I’ll address that one in a coda to a future column if you would all be so kind as to be patient with an auld phart.
The first la Llorona film, indeed the first Mexican horror film, was directed by Ramón Peón, one of roughly seventy films he made over a long career. La Llorona is not a bad film, but production-wise, about on a par with one of the better Hollywood Poverty Row studio films of its period. Some of this impression could be a simple lack of a good, restored copy, given that I’ve only been able to find a rather fuzzy presentation on YouTube, along with poorly synced subtitles to match. Maybe. The running time, like many of the la Llorona films of all periods, is taken up with an extensive flashback of the original legend as it unfolded in the late 16th Century. There is a second flashback to an even earlier, similar legend, that of la Malinche. She was the Aztec translator for and lover of Hernando Cortez, who also responded to being treated shabbily by killing the children she had borne the Conquistador almost a century before la Llorona began to weep. I’m not sure that segment adds to the overall quality of the film, but it does have some interest as a historical artifact. None of the other pictures I looked at for this column featured that older tale.
I think I might have just noticed a few eyes glaze over there a moment ago when I mentioned Poverty Row. My wife has been complaining for forty years now that I tend to throw out terms without always explaining them. I promise I will take a long, loving, terrified look at the old Hollywood studio system in the not-too-distant future, including what that phrase meant in the history of our genre. For now, you only need to know that Poverty Row was the collective noun for small, cheaply run and often fly-by-night independent studios mostly clustered along Gower Street in Hollywood that produced, at best, grade B movies. Westerns, serials, gangster pictures, and low-grade but often quite enjoyable horror pictures poured out of these movie mills, some shot in a matter of days on budgets that wouldn’t pay for a good used car today.
Moving on. That first La Llorona film has placed around the two flashbacks a contemporary story involving descendants of the original family, and the peril to the newest member, Juanito, on his fourth birthday. According to a legend related by the mother’s father, every first-born child in that line of descent disappeared on their fourth birthday, carried away by la Llorona. A mysterious, cloaked and masked figure lurks around the set, peering through secret panels and other such conventions of the Old Dark House sub-genre. It has comic relief, red herrings and all the trappings of better, and worse films. The climax reveals – Spoiler alert! – that it has been a trusted servant that has been possessed by the evil spirit of la Llorona. It had been she who was behind the several thwarted attempts to make away with the little boy.
As I stated above, not bad. Competently acted and directed, with a brisk but not rushed pace, it’s an enjoyable film of its period, with all the technical limitations inherent to that era. I just wish I could have found better subtitles, as my Spanish is not much better than at a ‘decipher-the-menu’ level. I suspect if I had been able to, I’d rate this one at C+. As it is, it’s a solid C.
The identically named version from 1960 is, structurally, very similar to the first film, but technically on a much higher level. I could easily see this coming from a North American studio of the caliber of Columbia or a second-tier Universal unit in that same time period. In fact, it reminds me, stylistically and technically, of one of the better William Castle vehicles, without the distracting gimmicks. A solid, well-made film, very enjoyable. I liked that the identity of la Llorona is made clear during her repeated attempts to do away with the child in this version. The build up of suspense for every attempt is handled with stylistic flair and subtle, gradual make-up effects at least as good as a contemporary Hollywood picture of its kind and time. B+
That leaves us with what is perhaps the most problematic of the films under consideration, The Curse of the Crying Woman, AKA La Maldición de la Llorona. Problematic in that it doesn’t exactly fit thematically with the others, being closer in tone and storyline to one of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Still, it’s quite an attractively mounted film, albeit in black-&-white rather than the color productions Corman was making by 1963. Otherwise, the influence is obvious. Its historical setting, in this case, the mid-to-late 19th Century, the mise en scene, the acting, are all seemingly in keeping with the style Corman had established north of the Rio Grande. And yet, its departures from the basic legend make it hard to judge as a la Llorona film.
Oh, boy, I did it again, didn’t I? Mise en scene is, simply put, everything in a film or play that isn’t acting or dialogue. Costumes, set design, props, lighting, music, etc. Clear as mud? Moving on.
This time out, the spirit of la Llorona is lurking around an ancient house, waiting to displace the soul of her nearest available female descendant. At the exact moment of her twenty-fifth birthday, the latest in the line is fated to pull a spear out of what looks like a Medieval torture device known as a Catherine Wheel upon which the decayed corpse of the original la Llorona has been pinned since she was executed for her crimes. That will free the spirit of la Llorona to possess the young woman so she can carry on her demonic career. The somewhat convenient escape of the insane former owner of the crumbling house, up until the climax locked away in the bell tower, scotches the evil plans by strangling the villainous aunt so that the heroine can escape with her less-than-hypercompetent husband.
Good, solid filmmaking of its kind and era. I rate it a B.
I hope the populace doesn’t object to my comparing these efforts of the Mexican studios to the contemporary output of Hollywood. I’m making the perhaps unwarranted assumption that the majority of the folks likely to read this are more familiar with North American horror films, and that that familiarity might provide some context for fitting these three pictures into the overall history of the genre. If I’m incorrect, feel free to let me have it with both barrels in your comments. I’m a tough old codger. I can take it.
So, read the edges of maps in the Age of Discovery, that period when Europeans wandered around the planet, snatching up lands and property and natural resources from indigenous peoples, to designate those areas into which they had not yet ventured. They feared what was there, but coveted the treasures they suspected would be found in those unexplored and unexploited regions. That’s where the monsters were, they thought, never realizing that they themselves were the monsters.
Isn’t that how it goes? The peril in staring so long into the abyss, according to Nietzsche, is that the abyss stares back into us. We become what we fear if we’re not careful. Alas, we are not very often a careful species. As Pogo Possum pointed out in the 1950s, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
And so, off the edge of the map, we sail, in search of treasures. And, in the case of the horror genre, monsters. For what would horror be without monsters?
The easy answer is, it would be suspense. There’s nothing wrong with suspense, as a genre. In many of its respects, it is very much like horror. It relies on many of the same tropes and tricks as horror. It’s just not what we’re are gathered here together to talk about. And, therefore, we must needs talk about monsters.
We love them, we hate them. We fear them, we pity them. We jump when they suddenly appear, we weep when they fall off of the Empire State Building. They are the primary and most reliable delivery system for le frisson, that delicious shiver we’re all looking for in our horror diet. That transient, delightful, cathartic physical sensation we feel when fangs pierce flesh when the mask is ripped away from the Phantom’s hideous face when clawed fingers emerge from the darkened room on the other side of the slowly opening door. The goosebumps, the dilation of the pupils, the quickening of the breath as we eagerly and, let’s admit it, sadistically anticipate the gruesome demise of some unfortunate nonentity.
Who’s the monster now?
More importantly, what is a monster?
The word comes from the Latin monstrum, from an earlier word that meant a warning or omen, often of evil events raining down upon humanity from the gods themselves. As applied to the manifestations of those warnings, it refers to beings that are disfigured or distorted in body or mind, the unnatural and the supernatural, those that are both outsized and outside the norm in other ways. In other words, those that we readily identify in our own culture as monsters.
Fritz Leiber, Jr. is more renowned for his fantasy than for his horror, having coined the term ‘sword and sorcery’ in 1961 and being arguably its most adept practitioner over the bulk of his nearly sixty-year career, but he wrote quite a few tales of terror and one major novel in the genre, Conjure Wife. He also won five Hugo Awards for science-fiction, but that’s even more neither here nor there than the fantasy. It’s horror we’re after! And I do plan to cover the estimable Mr. Leiber and his novel in more detail later, so don’t worry that you’ve inadvertently skipped a page or something, or that I’ve gotten you turned around or otherwise lost in the narrative. All shall be revealed at a later date.
Anyhow, in 1974, DAW Books published The Book of Fritz Leiber, for which he wrote a short essay entitled, “Monsters and Monster-Lovers”. Over the course of thirteen pages – and how fitting is that? – Leiber explicated his understanding of what a monster is, whence comes our fascination with them, and how does one go about most effectively creating them and using them to summon that frisson I mentioned earlier. Along the way, he lists some of his favorites, all of whom I intend to expound upon in future entries herein. Lovecraftian menaces from the outer darknesses, creatures of folklore and science fiction, giant apes and shapeshifters and even poor old Richard III, all will have their say in this space. Feeling that shiver of anticipation yet?
No? Then let me introduce you to legendary anthologist Peter Haining, who included in his 1988 collection, Movie Monsters: Great Horror Film Stories, a prologue by the late great Ray Bradbury. In “Inviting Frankenstein into the Parlour”, Bradbury covered much of the same ground Leiber had fourteen years earlier, with some additions. Including Vertigo, of all things. He made a fairly good case for a third Hitchcock horror film, along with Psycho and The Birds. I expect I’ll take a look at that one of these days, as well. It’s too soon to mark your calendars, but don’t be surprised when it pops up.
Haining himself deserves a lengthy entry or two, along with other great gatherers of literary horrors like Richard Dalby, Donald A. Wollheim, August Derleth, Marvin Kaye, Christine Bernard, Dennis Wheatley, Gerald Page, Herbert Van Thal, and Charles Birkin. That and more will be forthcoming in times to come, along with so much more. But for now, the central question remains:
Why monsters? What is it about the disfigured, the deformed, the gigantic and the unnatural that draws us into their world, time and again? Is it some deep-seated need to exorcise our fears, or tap into the collective unconscious, or connect with the like-minded, or some other intense but subcutaneous psychological need?
Or is it simply that monsters are fun?
Yeah. I think that’s it. Don’t you?
I came along at the tail-end of that first generation to be inundated by the classic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s when Universal and other studios realized they had a gold mine and dumped their catalogs onto local television stations all over the United States. I was too young to stay up late on weekend nights to watch Shock Theater or whatever it was called in Nashville, but there were frequent appearance by Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man and their myriad fellow denizens of the night on our local stations during the hours when I was awake. I, like a few million other boomer kids, scheduled my playtime around movie presentations like the Big Show, which came on right after Dark Shadows and had at least one classic horror film a week. Or I’d crawl out of bed at five o’clock on a Saturday morning to catch Son of Frankenstein or The Mummy’s Curse on Night Owl Theater, before settling in with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and a morning filled with cartoons. The Universal horror films were rarely much more than an hour in length, so once commercials were spliced in, they fit very nicely into the ninety-minute slot allotted to them. I’ve always suspected that was why it was that horror movies were so widely distributed on television, and thus one of the first entire classes of films largely preserved for future generations. Thank the Elder Gods for ninety-minute time slots.
Kids today are accustomed to massive promotional campaigns for pretty much anything that shows up on TV or in the movies, but that was a fairly new phenomenon in the early 1960s. There had been such campaigns in the 1950s for TV cowboys and such, but they were very specific. Hopalong Cassidy was the first, and Davy Crockett the most extensive, but those were before my time. My earliest memories of advertising premiums were the action figures from the third James Bond film, Goldfinger, that several of my fellow second-graders had, or the lunch-boxes decorated with pictures of popular TV and movie characters. Those, and all the monster stuff. And what monster stuff we had!
My parents frequently shopped at the old Sears store on Lafayette Street in Nashville. That building is now the Union Rescue Mission, but when I was a kid, when you came in through the garden department, you emerged into a magical world. Toys as far as you could see, and to your right a display of Matchbox Cars, back when they were actually packaged in matchbox-sized cardboard containers. Hence the name. Just beyond those was the real treasure trove, a long wall filled with plastic models, including the Aurora Monster kits. Frankenstein. The Mummy. Godzilla. Dracula’s Dragster. The Bride of Frankenstein. I built them all, at one time or another. There were monster wallets, too. I had one with the Phantom of the Opera on one side and the Wolf Man on the other. Didn’t have any money to put in it, though. My allowance was fifty cents a week, which barely covered a few comic books and some baseball cards and the occasional paperback or Whitman hardback or Big Little Book. But I had the wallet! And I had a Thingmaker, with metal molds you filled up with Plastigoop and baked in the little oven until Creepy Crawlers emerged that you could throw at your little sister and freak her out.
Best of all, when you could find one, were the issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. Articles on all the old horror films, and news of upcoming ones, with lots of pictures and groan-inducing puns. The thirty-five-cent cover price took up most of my allowance, cutting into my comic book collecting, but it was worth it to read Forrest J. Ackerman’s deathless prose about Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre and peruse the ads in the back for Don Post monster masks and 8mm films of old horror movies and real-life venus flytraps and record albums of scary stories and all the other goodies for sale to those whose allowance was more generous than mine.
All of which I intend to examine in some detail in installments yet to come, along with all the other spooky goodies I’ve read and seen and heard and otherwise accumulated in the decades since then. Hang around and travel down my memory lane with me into dark corners of horror you might not have ever suspected existed, and meet some monsters you might not have encountered yet.
It should be fun. Because, yeah, monsters are fun.