TALES FROM A LIFE LIVED WITH MONSTERS
Over at my other haunt, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, there is currently posted, in honor of Halloween week, what I think are two very special treats (and possibly tricks). The first is a very challenging frame grab quiz in which readers are asked to guess the titles of 31 movies based on eerie images that may or may not be so easy to identify. The other is a special edition of the traditional interview-type quiz I occasionally come up devoted entirely to the harrowing world of horror. It features the usual batch of questions for which there are no wrong answers, only your answers, which makes it much more fun to fill out and especially to read. As usual, it’s taking me a while to get around to submitting my own answers to the quiz, but in the creeping shadow of the approaching holiday I thought I’d take a shot at answering one here:
At what moment did you realize you were a horror fan? (Or what caused you to realize you weren’t?)
Well, it should be apparent by now that the second half of this poser is not applicable. It really does feel as though I’ve been a fan of monster movies and the horror genre for as far as my increasingly feeble memory stretches back. I don’t know if here was a specific moment or not, but when I think back on the possible origins of my interest I think there are probably two factors that converged that really helped to seal the deal for me, as they probably did for many my age. (A tail-end baby-boomer, I was born in 1960.)
My mom bought me my very first copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland when I was probably around seven years old. Famous Monsters was a publication any good horror fan of a certain age (and hopefully much younger) recognizes as an essential and seminal influence on the sensibility on an entire generation’s love for the horror genre. It certainly was that for me. Edited by one Forrest J. Ackerman, a science-fiction and horror enthusiast of the first order (he coined the term “sci-fi,” for crying out loud), FM, as my pals and I came to refer to it, was a real gateway drug into understanding and appreciating the enduring landmarks as well as the endless marginalia scattered throughout the history of the horror genre. Within its pages I first learned of and became fascinated by men with strange names like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, monsters like Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and of course all the nightmares they would inspire. But I think the thing that I probably most responded to, the thing that kept me coming back, is that Ackerman and his writers knew how to appeal to that hungry interest that can be cultivated in kids without ever seeming to have talked down to that audience. The copy of a typical article, and especially the captions accompanying the treasure trove of stills each new issue offered, were often groan-inducing but also endearing, almost like a new language devised just for the readership of Famous Monsters, which Ackerman would always remind us was published in Horrorwood, Karloffornia. Yet there was serious love for the subject infused into every sentence, a whole world of monsters and mayhem just waiting to be revealed.
(For more on Famous Monsters of Filmland and Forrest J. Ackerman, I refer you to pieces I posted on SLIFR in honor of Ackerman’s 90th birthday in 2006 and the day back in 1998 when I did a pilgrimage to the Ackermansion itself.)
And because of the interest sparked by Mr. Ackerman’s mag, I was perfectly primed at the elementary school age for the arrival of Dark Shadows. No messing around on the playground for me after class left out– every afternoon I would race home in order to make it home in time to see the latest installment in Dan Curtis’ groundbreaking horror-themed soap opera. I’d heard murmurings about it at school and began watching just as Barnabas Collins, my generation’s very own vampire hero, was being introduced to spice up the show’s viscous gothic atmosphere (to say nothing of the sagging ratings that viscous atmosphere was inspiring). The combination of a daily infusion of daytime horror, consumed in the brightly lit living room of my house in Citrus Heights, California, and all the background knowledge and infectious enthusiasm I was eagerly absorbing through the pages of Famous Monsters every month cemented the foundation of an everlasting love for all things monster in this boy’s life.
When my parents moved us from Citrus Heights, California back to Oregon and my hometown of Lakeview, Oregon when I was about eight years old, I was allowed to go to the movies much more frequently than I ever was when we lived in the big, bad suburbs of Sacramento. And among all the other treats my hometown theater offered, I was lucky enough to see many memorable horror movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, usually featured as one-night-only engagements to mark Friday the 13th, New Year’s Eve and, of course, Halloween. These were the movie nights I waited for, the movie nights I lived for, and considering I wasn’t living in an urban center but instead in a little cow town in Southern Oregon, I was extremely lucky to be able to see great, gruesome, 100% fun stuff like The Devil’s Own, The Green Slime, Rasputin the Mad Monk, Dracula, Prince of Darkness, The House That Screamed, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Dunwich Horror and countless others amongst other screaming kids like myself on the big screen. (The scary one-mile walk home down darkened streets after one of these shows was a scary treat all its own.)
My excitement whenever my friends and I got to see one of these shows, which were sometimes double features even, could barely be contained. I remember one night, during a showing of The Return of Count Yorga, being so caught up in the thrill of seeing Robert Quarry lunging down a hallway in slow motion toward his intended victim that I turned to yell at the kids behind me—“Did you see that?! Did you see that?!”—and ended up missing most of the juicy stuff that happened when he made it to the end of the hall. And one Friday the 13th screening of The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck was made particularly memorable when a bat that had apparently found a sleeping spot high in the rafters behind the screen decided to take a mid-movie buzz through the auditorium. The closest thing to a riot my hometown ever saw ensued. (Or at least that’s the way this panicked kid remembers it.)
But the all-time best Halloween night horror show at my hometown theater happened when the 1972 Amicus production of Tales from the Crypt came to town. This was a special engagement which was highly anticipated, at least by me– I’d been seeing the ads for the movie in the Portland Oregonian for quite a while, and that screaming skull with the eyeball inserted in an otherwise cleaned-out socket sold me on the movie from my very first glimpse. The rowdy house was packed for a night of horror, and the madness of the crowd made hearing the movie sometimes difficult, but I was so excited that I tried not to care– I was seeing Tales from the Crypt! The din had started long before the opening curtain parted, and it continued to increase, relentlessly, seemingly without regard to what was happening on screen. (As I think back on it, I often wonder if I was the only one in the house that night who actually cared what was going on in the movie itself.)
And finally, when some sort of projectile flew out of the crowd and landed very close to the screen, the owner of the theater had had enough. I noticed him as he marched slowly, deliberately, to the front of the theater, while the movie and the lunatics in this particular asylum continued to squirm and shout and laugh and scream. Suddenly the lights came up, the movie stopped and everyone went silent. The theater owner wordlessly surveyed the crowd from the front of the screen, just a few rows away from where my carcass was parked. “What I have before me, on the floor of the auditorium,” he intoned ominously, as if taking his fearsome cue from Sir Ralph Richardson’s Cryptkeeper himself, “is a fresh egg.” Someone had apparently smuggled some chicken-produced projectiles, perhaps intended to be chucked at someone’s house or car later, into the theater, and in the wild fervor of the moment that someone had let one fly. The theater owner berated the audience for their behavior and threatened to shut the screening down entirely, with no refunds, if decorum wasn’t restored immediately. He even yelled out at one poor bastard who was still cutting up during this frightening speech—“You! In the balcony! I know it was you who threw it!” Even though I wasn’t causing trouble myself, I was terrified. (I could only laugh about it later). But I was also secretly glad because, goddamn it, I couldn’t hear the movie, and the last thing I would have wanted was for the owners of the theater to suddenly decide that it wasn’t worth the trouble and pull the plug on these horror holiday special shows, which I considered a major perk and a significant antidote to the doldrums of citizenship in my hometown.
There was one added extra bonus to the night, however. The movie was nearing its end, the audience now sufficiently calmed and, I imagine, sated with fear, inspired both by the movie and by the Man. One of the ushers, a hoity-toity high school girl a few years older than most of us who could be heard throughout the movie making fun of the movie when she passed by with her flashlight, was making her last rounds. On screen the Cryptkeeper had already hurled the movie’s stars down into the pit to hell, but hardly satisfied with the evening’s haul of souls, he proceeded to intone to the now-empty chamber in which he sat, “Who will be next?” Then a brief pause. At that moment the usher, imagining herself to be the pinnacle of wit, replied for all the house to hear, “Me!” And before she could peel off a snarky laugh, Richardson turned to the camera (and, of course, to the usher) and uttered with actorly relish, “Perhaps you?!” The usher actually screamed and ran out to the lobby, providing the greatest non-rehearsed interactive ending to a horror movie I’ve ever been witness to. And for those of us who always lived under a cloud of constant condescension from people who thought horror movies were stupid, bad for you or otherwise beneath contempt, it was an especially satisfying end to a very raucous and memorable night.
You probably (hopefully!) have stories like these of your own, if you’re my age. And though they’re unlikely to capture that same frisson of chills and discovery the Halloween show of or youth held for budding monster fans, if you keep your eyes and ears open there are still plenty of great Halloween-themed horror shows programmed annually in theaters which could possibly inspire you to get off your couch on this annual night of fright. Here in Los Angeles alone you can catch these treats (no tricks) this coming weekend: the annual All-night Horror Show at the New Beverly Cinema, a 12-hour marathon made up of six rare feature films along with an assortment of trailers, cartoons and shorts, all of which remain a delicious secret until they are unveiled on screen; Geto Boy rapper Bushwick Bill providing a running rap commentary over his favorite horror flick, the original 1988 Chucky classic Child’s Play, at the Cinefamily; and Sara Karloff, daughter of Boris, introducing a double bill of The Bride of Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein at the newly reopened Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. All that is just tonight.
Back at the Cinefamily you can see William Castle’s The Tingler, complete with the seat-buzzing Percepto gimmick, screening twice on Halloween afternoon, and then on Halloween night the New Beverly has a great night of black-and-white horror planned featuring Curse of the Demon, Carnival of Souls and, at midnight, Night of the Living Dead.
And speaking of Sara Karloff, she and Bela Lugosi Jr., son of the great Bela Lugosi, were on hand for a showing of the relatively underappreciated Son of Frankenstein (1939) last night at the splendiferous Alex Theater in downtown Glendale which I was grateful to be able to attend. The event was hosted by current Famous Monsters of Filmland editor David Weiner and sponsored by the Alex Film Society, and a better (egg-free) preparation for Halloween it could not have been. Karloff and Lugosi were clearly honored and excited to be promoting the legacy of their famous parents, even if one felt they might have been rehashing the same stories from countless similar appearances, and they lent the evening a suitable gravitas to go along with the spirited fun.
The movie itself is far more entertaining than its reputation as a mere sequel would suggest. Karloff may have been tiring of appearing as the Monster by this point, but it doesn’t show in his performance. This great actor remains committed in Son of Frankenstein to the pathos of his creation while perhaps keeping more attuned to the Monster’s rage the third time around, as well as to a sense of gallows humor—the moment when he considers tossing the unbearable moppet Donnie Dunagan into a roiling pit of sulfur, before sadly deciding against it, is truly delicious.
And Lugosi turns in what might be his best performance here as the wronged, but still clearly psychotic Igor, his neck having been broken in a botched attempt by enraged villagers to hang him and whose impulse toward vengeance spurs the Monster’s worst behavior. His contemptuous hearing before the council that once attempted to execute him is a masterful bit of comic/tragic acting, and it’s a shame he never really got the chance to shine like this on the screen again during the remainder of his career.
Meanwhile, Basil Rathbone and four-star character actor Lionel Atwill as, respectively, the conflicted son of the Monster’s creator and the local police inspector who suspects new foul play at Castle Frankenstein, carry the dramatic proceedings right up to the edge of parody without ever tipping over. A friend of mine recently described their richly pleasurable performances here as “plummy,” and I can’t possibly top that description. It is enormous fun watching this movie, which provided the basic template for the plot and many of the comedic touchstones of Young Frankenstein (1974), and realizing how closely Kenneth Mars’ hilarious performance as the village inspector in Mel Brooks’ movie is related to what Lionel Atwill does here, right down to the darts jammed into the gendarme’s wooden arm during a tense standoff between the inspector and the doctor.
Son of Frankenstein was a joy to watch unfold on the magnificent Alex screen last night, in the presence of friends and my oldest daughter, who loves the monster classics just like her dad. It was a Halloween show to live on with my memories of the great ones of my youth, though thankfully less raucous, and hopefully it’s one that she’ll remember with fondness in the same way I remember those Halloween nights at my local show house. So to return to the original question, that’s how I realized that I’m a horror fan, and why the genre and its rich history continues to mean so much to me. Here’s hoping if it means the same to you that you’ll find your way to a monster classic and a suitably terrifying Halloween night this year too.