Last night, at the tail end of a long and weird day, after all the rest of the folks who live with me were snug in bed, I shut off all the lights in the house, settled into my living room movie-watching chair and fired up a vintage Hammer classic I’d never seen before, The Reptile (1966). Even though it was directed by John Gilling, who helmed one of my favorite Hammer pictures, The Plague of the Zombies (from the same year), my expectations were low—I’d heard from trustworthy sources that it wasn’t a top-drawer offering from my favorite genre-oriented studio. But The Reptile, despite being a bit of a slow burn (as, admittedly, many Hammer pictures are, especially to a generation weaned on visually hyperactive remakes and reboots of established classics), turned out to be a creepy, well-earned scare, and the lead-up to the reveal of the titular creature pays off with a much more frightening and convincing makeup design than the one we got at the end of The Gorgon, which is probably a better picture overall. Beyond the reveal, The Reptile doesn’t really have much of a finish, but watching it in as much darkness as my little house in Glendale could muster reminded me of the mortified delight I used to take in staying up late on Friday night to watch the CBS Late Movie, which is where I caught several of the Hammer movies I would grow to love, even ones like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed which I had already been lucky enough to see theatrically.
On those nights, I would glue myself to the chair in my parents’ living room, fully aware that I couldn’t make too much noise—the TV couldn’t be too loud or my dad would come storming out of his bedroom, demanding to know what the hell all the noise was and, worst of all, insisting that I shut the TV off and go to bed. So there was a certain amount of tension in the situation for me even before the late night movie theme song came on, which of course heralded the official start of the real scares.
During the movie itself, I would sit rigid in the chair, my full attention riveted to the screen. There was a twofold reason for this. 1) Because I was completely consumed by the nightmarish stories that were unfolding before me. But also 2), because I was convinced that lurking just outside my peripheral vision, hidden somewhere in the shadowy corner of the room, perhaps near the front door, was a monster the equal of anything in the movie, poised to lunge out from said shadows at precisely the moment of my discovery of it. And God help me (He never did) if I had to get up and go to the bathroom during a commercial, because who knew what lay in wait for me on the long walk from my chair to the toilet.
I flashed on all of this while I was watching the movie last night, the memory of how much fun it was as a kid to be totally taken to the cleaners by a movie like The Reptile. It was dark enough in my house last night that when the male lead went creeping through the old dark house and came face to face with the reptile itself, the frightening visage concocted by Hammer’s makeup team seemed to lunge out of the shadows of my own house, and it honestly scared the shit out of me. I was a 57-year-old adult who felt reduced to the emotional responses of his 13-year-old self, and very pleasurably so.
In thinking about it in the light of the morning after, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for my daughters’ generation, kids who are surrounded by every iteration and manifestation of technology; who never have to wait until 11:30 on a weekend night to get their horror movie dosage, who approach the vintage classics of the genre with suspicion or having already been exposed to their various gruesome highlights and surprises via memes and GIFs and other strands of Internet magic; and whose exposure to horror movies almost always come in group settings where the default response is usually set to ironic deflation or laughter, settings in which the movies have virtually no chance to be effective in the way they were intended.
This sort of superiority to the experience of watching a vintage horror movie with an audience is certainly not restricted to young people. This past Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend a Halloween-themed screening of Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula (1960), which I’d never seen projected, at the beautiful Alex Theater in downtown Glendale, and the audience was primarily comprised of folks 10 years either side of my age. These people were only too happy to giggle at anything, especially any acting, that seemed even slightly over-florid. And just in case anyone should think they were taking things too seriously, at each and every appearance of an obviously phony vampire bat, rather than just settle into the movie and accept the convention of the effects of the day, there was a ripple of laughter as if to say, “I must let everyone around me know that I know how funny those fake bats are!” Thanks for the information, Gladys and Herb. Now pipe down! Fortunately, the movie was as good as it always has been, certainly engrossing enough to offset the offenses of a bunch of bat gigglers.
I still love horror movies, the old ones especially, but new ones too, when they live up to the potential of the genre and honor it instead of simply splattering it all over the walls. But I so miss that feeling of being a child totally at the mercy of a movie which orchestrates, by design or by accident, an audience’s fear so completely. I remember being a bit older (around 15) and coming across Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the second feature (airing around 2:00 a.m.) of Sinister Cinema, the weekend horror movie program which originated out of Portland, Oregon in the 1970s. The movie had already been anointed (and excoriated) as a midnight cult hit, but as far as I knew this was the first time anyone had shown it on any TV program that I could see. And much like those CBS Late Movie showings from just a few years earlier, I was mortified as I watched from my bedroom (a little less likely to get yelled at by Dad from there), and just as paranoid to scan the room for possible monsters as I ever was.
A couple years later, in college, I saw the movie projected for the first time, a midnight show at a local Eugene, Oregon mutliplex, and I was filled with nervous dread and anticipation almost as if I’d never seen the movie before. The movie started, and as the fear began to ratchet up, somebody outside, a drunk or a prankster, began banging on the exit door to the parking lot. It went on for a couple minutes, before the door-banger could be dissuaded by a theater employee or a security guard. But by then it was too late—the thought that, hey, what if that banging was a ghoul outside trying to get into the theater, just like what was happening in the movie?! What then???!!!! I left the screening genuinely worried, if only for a minute or so, that we might all emerge from the darkened auditorium into the darkened parking lot to a world already at the mercy of the intestine-gobbling, all-too-living dead. And that fear made the movie even better, more fun. I haven’t experienced anything as simultaneously exhilarating and genuinely horrifying at a movie since that night.
How old were you when you first saw Night of the Living Dead? You can answer in the comments column below, of course. But this was a question I originally posed to friends on my Facebook page last week, and most who answered confessed to a range of ages that would probably, on some objective scale, be determined to be too young for such an experience. But from such scars comes a unique appreciation of the genuine horror movie experience, and none of them expressed any regret at having endured the movie for the first time at such tender ages. Horror scholar and historian Richard Harland Smith relayed a story very similar to mine, recalling an ideal viewing of NOTLD on late-night television as a youngster, alone in his parents’ country house, unnerved and compulsively checking the backyard during commercial breaks “and behind the shower curtain in the bathroom when I ran in to take a leak.” Another Facebook friend described seeing it theatrically in high school in 1970, at around age 15, having to convince the two friends he attended with, who fled to the lobby at various points during the film, to stay there so he could go back in and watch the rest of the movie. The dead silence of the audience as the lights came up matched that in the car ride home, with the two friends who were furious at their pal for having put them through such a nightmare.
And then there’s an eerie tale told by Dean Treadway, one of the hosts of the podcast Movie Geeks United. He has given me permission to copy and paste his remembrance of his first encounter with Romero’s classic, and I’m happy to present it to you now:
“I had a similar first time viewing experience. Late night on WTCG Channel 17 (the early TBS), probably about 12 midnight or so. The film scared me to no end at that age (around 12). I should add, while I was watching the movie on WTCG (which was then still a little ol’ Atlanta station), somewhere around the middle of the film, technical difficulties arose at the station. Back then, when that would happen on TV, everything would stop, and get real quiet. The screen might go black for a few seconds… and then a station logo would come up on screen, sometimes still silently. This happened that night, and as I was sitting in our TV room, with the picture window behind me pointed towards the inky backyard darkness, that inimitable station announcer came on and said those immortal words, in that low authoritative but worrying tone: ‘One moment, please.’ More silence. By this time, I was looking outside at the dark nothing, awaiting the moment where a lone zombie would come and smoosh his rotting face against the glass. It was the apex of my fright up to that point. Romero’s movie came back on after a minute or so, a seemingly protracted minute. I was relieved, up to a point (still had the last half of the movie to go, including the extra somber ending). But I never forgot that one moment. It’s stayed with me for years and still gives me the gooseflesh. And I still wonder if someone at the station was punking us viewers with a phony crisis for scaremongering giggles. I’ll never know, but I do know that it worked.”
That’s the best Night of the Living Dead story I’ve certainly ever heard, and I am ultra-envious of Dean for having lived and survived it. May Halloween be full of similar frights, humanoid reptiles and ghouls and other unexpected, unimaginable creatures lurching out of the dark of the imagination whose only mission is to grab us kicking and screaming back to the good old days of universally chilled childhood spinal columns, recharging us to deal with the real-world demons that will always be waiting when the lights come back on.