Monday, October 31, 2016

Reminiscing About Classic Horror Movies: A Blog Post For Halloween

Subtitle: My Review of Cinemassacre's Reviews of Classic Horror Movies

For some time now, I've been noticing that a difference in interest between me and my adolescent students.

My students are obsessed with horror movies.

But me, I'm mostly apathetic about horror movies.  You might even say I'm bored with the genre. I don't keep up with any of the latest horror movies that come out, which causes me to frequently be out of touch with my students.

A frequent conversation, one that I've been having for years now, usually goes like this.

Student: Teacher, have you seen____ (name of some new horror movie)________?
Me: What? What's that?  Is that the name of a movie?  I've never heard of it.

Then they proceed to tell me all about the horror movie, and I proceed to completely lose interest in the conversation.

It didn't use to be like this.  In my own adolescence, I was just as obsessed with horror movies as they are now.  But I guess I've grown out of it.

Which (correct me if I'm wrong) is pretty much the common trajectory, isn't it?  Most of us are fascinated by horror movies when we're young, and most of us get bored with it by the time we reach middle age.

(Strange that.  For so long I regarded horror movies as part of the "adult world" that I never realized they were in fact actually juvenile entertainment.)

It's an interesting phenomena.  I'm tempted to try to puzzle out why this is exactly, but the question is probably too big for me.
I mean, first I would have to ask: why are young people so fascinated with horror movies in the first place?
And as far as I know, there's no logical reason for any of our primal fascinations.
I'm sure there are plenty of essays out there already analyzing this question from a Freudian perspective or from a evolutionary psychological perspective, but none of those are my field, so I won't waste your time with my sophomoric attempts at psycho-analysis.

...well, okay, I will waste your time with at least one of my sophomoric observations.
Part of the reason I've lost interest in horror movies, and in movies in general, is that as you get older movies lose their magic.
When I was younger, movies seemed real to me.
It's not that I ever confused movies with reality.
My mother used to be very concerned about this when I was a child, and constantly made sure we understood the movies we were watching weren't "real".  And I knew they weren't "real" in the sense that I knew they weren't part of our real physical world.  But they did seem to exist in their own world, which was real in its own terms.
Nowadays, when I watch a movie, I can't help but see the hand of the screenwriter--the tired old hacks who are writing in cliches, throwing around deus ex machinas, and creating flat one-dimensional characters.  I know some characters are written purely to be killed off in order to increase tension, and I know some characters will never be killed off because they are too important to the plot.  I know some characters are written to be unlikable just for the sake of being unlikable, and that none of their malice will ever make any logical sense or come from realistic motivation.

But as a child, you can't yet see behind the curtain.  Intellectually, of course, I knew that these were all actors, and that the story was written by a screen writer.  But as soon as the movie started, you forgot all that and were transported into another world.

This ability to lose yourself in the world of the movie increases the horror of it.  And, from a child's perspective, also increases the fascination of it.
I was at the same time both simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by horror movies (much like every child).  At the one hand, I felt like I was too scared to watch them.  On the other hand, precisely because these movies seemed real to me, I felt like I just had to know what happened to the characters.  Who would survive, and who would die?  These were important questions back when movies seemed to be actually real.  If you didn't actually see the movie, the curiosity would consume you.

Growing up in a conservative Christian family, for a long time I wasn't allowed to watch the horror movies that I was fascinated by.  At least not at first.
I think my fascination with monster movies started around 3rd grade.  I wasn't allowed to watch the old black and white horror movies until I was in 6th grade.
And although time rushes by so fast now, when you're a child, those 3 years were like a lifetime.  A lifetime in which those movies built themselves up in my imagination.

I read books about the old universal monsters.  I imagined the movies several times over before I ever saw them.
The old universal monster movies have become so much a part of our collective culture that even someone who has never seem them knows about the conventions--the graveyard surrounded by fog, the old spooky castle up on the mountain, the clouds covering up the moon.  I had dreams about these set pieces long before I actually saw the movies.

...And when I did actually see these old monster movies, I was disappointed that they were nowhere near as scary as I had imagined.
I guess after having being built up in my mind for so long, nothing could really have equaled my anticipation.
But there is also the strange and fascinating phenomenon of collective media desensitization.  By all contemporary reports, these movies legitimately scared audiences in the 1930s.  (People were so upset by the original 1931 Frankenstein that the movie theatres eventually started including warnings before movie).   Eventually, though, audiences became desensitized to these scares, and the the movie theatres had to go more and more extreme to get the same reaction.
This filtered down into all sorts of other media, so that by the time I saw these movies in the 1990s, there was scarier stuff on afternoon TV than there were in these old horror movies.

Therefore to this day my fondness for these movies is more in the idea of them than the actual movies themselves.  I'm more fond of the image I built up in my head when I was between 8-12.  I still like the creepy atmosphere, the fog machines, the clouded sky, and the spooky graveyards.

However I was still young enough to be somewhat sucked in by the story of the movies.  When characters died, it felt like someone really died.  When characters were in peril, it felt like someone was really in trouble.  I felt for the tragedy of Lawrence Talbot, and was fascinated by the moral ambiguity of Doctor Frankenstein.

And because of my nostalgia for these movies, I still maintain a fondness for them, even though I should have long ago outgrown their appeal, and even though I no longer find modern horror films interesting.  (Nostalgia is another funny thing...but that's another subject for another post.)

Anyway, all of that is a long pre-amble just to say I've really enjoyed cinemassacre's review of these classic monster movies.
With the later reviews especially, Cinemassacre goes into great detail about the plot--he covers the plot holes, the continuity errors between movies, and some of the behind the scenes production issues.
As Cinemassacre details in his reviews, the series starts out great, with some genuine classic movies.  (Not necessarily scary by today's standards, but still well-done pieces of cinema).  The series then eventually degenerates into camp, but if you are interested in the history of pulp fiction (and I am), then it's gloriously pulpy camp, with all the great cliches.

* Dracula (1931) here.  (Dracula was the first of universal's monster movies, and, unfortunately, the fact that the craft was still in its infancy is apparent.  It moves painfully slowly for a modern audience.  The first time I tried to watch it, I stayed up late to see it on TV, and then ended up struggling to stay awake for the whole thing.)

* Frankenstein (1931) here .  (And an overview of the whole series here).

* The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) here.  (As with any long running movie series, the Universal Monster series started out with great films that are still recognized by the critics today, and then degenerated into terrible films.  But The Bride of Frankenstein is usually recognized by even respectable critics as a great piece of cinema art.  See Roger Ebert's essay on the movie here.)

* Dracula's Daughter (1936) here.  (A direct sequel to Dracula, featuring many of the same characters.  But, unfortunately, not including Dracula himself.  Unfortunately there would only ever be one Dracula movie starring Bela Lugosi.)

* Son of Frankenstein (1939) here.

* The Wolf Man (1941) here.  (The Wolfman was always my favorite movie monster, because it was the perfect intersection of my childhood love for wolves with my childhood love for monster movies.  But even more than that, I always thought Lawrence Talbot's tragic story made the character much more interesting than Frankenstein or Dracula.)

* Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) here.  (Actually, Ghost of Frankenstein is the only movie in this series I never got around to seeing as a kid.  Not that I didn't want to see it, it just never happened to be re-run on TV when I was going through my monster movie phase.  I still haven't seen this movie to date.)

* Son of Dracula (1943).  Hmmm, strange, Cinemassacre hasn't reviewed this movie.  The only one in the series that he's missing.  Well, for the record, I saw this as well back in my adolescence.

* Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) here .  (I think this is my favorite movie in the whole series).

* House of Frankenstein (1944) here.  (This was the first movie to include Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman all in the same movie.  Unfortunately, the screen writers never really figured out a way to combine all three monsters on screen at the same time, so although all three monsters are in the movie, Dracula never appears with Frankenstein and the Wolfman.)

* House of Dracula (1945) here.  (The second movie including all three monsters.  This movie was never on TV when I was a kid.  I spent years trying to track it down, and finally found it at a VHS rental store some time when I was in college.  It was pretty terrible, as you would expect from a movie this late in the series.  But at least it still had all 3 monsters in it.)

* Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) here.  (The swan song for the series.  Despite the title, this was yet another movie in which all three monsters appeared--Frankenstein and the Wolfman and Dracula.  It's kind of official--it had many of the original actors--but also kind of not.  I've already written about my fondness for this movie once before on this blog.)

* Wolfman Versus Dracula (unfilmed script) here.  (Cinemassacre does a nice job about talking about this never-filmed movie, and why he's pretty sure it isn't a hoax.  This was the video that got me hooked in, and made me re-watch all this other videos.)

Happy Halloween everyone.

Various Addenda
I've written once before about my adolescent fascination with  horror films here.

I've once before mentioned my fondness for watching these the old style horror movies on Halloween here.

I've noted my teenage students' fascination with horror films once before here.  (That was in Cambodia. I'm in Vietnam now, but my young students are still equally fascinated with horror.  I'm pretty sure it's true the world over among young people).

Also on the subject of classic horror films:
 When I reviewed the re-make of The Blob, I talked about my fascination with the 1958 Steve McQueen version.

And when I reviewed the  reviewed the remake of The Thing, I talked about my history with the 1952 version. 


Darrell Reimer said...

I can't quite classify the Universal monster movies as horror -- they never evoked the emotion in me, and I wonder to what degree they did in their original audience members. The monsters always looked cool -- they always looked like toys. Contrast Bela Lugosi's Dracula with Max Schreck's Nosferatu (which Wikipedia classifies as "fantasy thriller" -- a more apt term, I think).

Joel Swagman said...

One of the biggest disappointments of my adolescence was discovering that these movies weren't actually scary. But by the time I actually got around to seeing them, they had been built up so much in my mind that they will always be a big part of my childhood nostalgia nonetheless, even if a lot of this nostalgia is based around the anticipation of these movies.

I'm given to understand that the original audience members found them genuinely horrifying--at least with the originals, anyway. By the time the 1940s, I think the series had pretty much turned into a joke.

I couldn't give you the reference now, but I once saw a TV special on the history of horror films in which people were interviewed, and talked about how much the original Frankenstein had horrified them as children in the 1930s.
Apparently so many people got upset by the 1931 Frankenstein that theatres even started putting up warnings at the beginning of it. And the scene with the girl being thrown in the pond upset people so much it had to be cut out entirely from some showings back in the day.

Of course nowadays it's difficult to credit that these movies could have shocked anyone. The 1931 Frankenstein is so tame compared to...well, compared to just about anything. It's amazing to think how much society has become desensitized to horror in just a couple of generations.

Darrell Reimer said...

Watched The Exorcist with my younger(18yo) daughter last night, which she declared "way better" than the current crop of horror movies. I think what she appreciated most was the surprisingly subtle strokes -- Frankenheimer didn't try to make one person super-sympathetic, the way directors seem bent on doing in films these days. Everyone was a little odd, and came across as somewhat compromised.

Anyway, although the movie retains an ability to disturb and keep the viewer entranced, it was NOT the immersive nuclear blast of shock that audiences experienced in '73. So it goes, then.

Joel Swagman said...

It's interesting, isn't it? I don't think there's every been a historical parallel of audiences getting desensitized so quickly.

I mean, I haven't researched this, so I could be wrong. But my hunch is that media had a longer shelf-life in the days before moving pictures.

...I'm ashamed to say I've never seen the Exorcist. I'll have to remedy that one of these days.