I've done this sort of Halloween post before, but for those of you who may have missed it (or them), let's have a do-over. (Plus it seems as if Google has made it impossible to search my blog for titles of long lost posts.) The movies I like may not be the best movies ever, they rarely are, but they are the movies that I liked and continue to like best.
With rare exceptions I am a purist, I am not fond of technicolor (or any other color) horror movies. I like my spine tingling chills in black and white. For me, scary movies from the 50's, 60's, 70's (well, you get my drift) were always TOO gory and catsup colored - no thanks. (Sorry, Sergio!)
So, having said that, here we go:
The order of these movies can be shuffled about easily so don't take the numbers thing too seriously. And of course there are many, MANY other titles I could have included, all from the golden age of movie making (at least, far as I'm concerned). But these 5 are, I think, a good representation of the best in stylish ghoulishness. Can't disregard that pesky thing called 'style'.
1) THE UNINVITED (1944) starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Gail Russell. Directed by Lewis Allen. This is the absolutely perfect Halloween movie. Eerie, atmospheric, beautifully photographed, minimalist in tone yet gloriously gloomy. It's all there: An old house pulsing with mystery, perched on the edge of a cliff, a weeping ghost and a very satisfying ending. Of course, being that there's a cliff we not only get the sounds of waves crashing against the rocks, we also get a story of how, long ago, someone fell to their death over those very cliffs. It doesn't hurt the suspense any when the things we expect happen anyway.
The house, newly purchased at a very cheap price (uh-oh) by a composer (Ray Milland) and his sister (Ruth Hussey), contains, along with a gorgeous entryway and fabulous staircase, an icy menacing presence (whom we don't see except vaguely in one scene) and the sound of ghostly crying in the night.
Almost from the first, the fight is on for the life of a young and impressionable girl played by perpetually bewildered Gail Russell. The only weak link in the chain is Russell's 'English' accent which is a total failure, but she is so beautiful in this that it hardly matters. My review.
2) SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) starring Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. My favorite Frankenstein movie (except for the Abbott and Costello one). NOTHING can top Basil Rathbone's frenzied, wild-eyed performance as Wolf von Frankenstein as he goes over the top once he discovers that, yes, his dad was capable of doing the unthinkable.
To my eye, the second most memorable thing about the film is the setting which includes a very bizarre and angular central hall (torture chamber school of interior design) in a home purporting to be a place where the Frankenstein family will raise their young son (who, by the way, has a Southern accent - don't ask, I have no clue). Third most memorable is the Frankenstein monster himself, played by Karloff as he skulks about behind the walls of the castle, gleefully kept in check by Ygor (Bela Lugosi) who uses him as a revenge tool to do away with the members of a jury which condemned him (Ygor) to death by hanging. A hanging which, obviously, didn't take.
Anyway, LOVE this movie which also features an enormously engaging performance by Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, a dogged policeman with a wooden arm. My review.
3) CAT PEOPLE (1942) a Val Lewton film directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Tom Conway. LOVE this movie most especially for the fabulous camera work and menacing atmosphere. Almost everything that happens here happens in our imagination, THAT'S why this is such a frightening film.
There's very little excess of anything, except that you KNOW something is percolating beneath the surface and when oh when will it spring out and grab you. See, there's this young Serbian woman (beautiful in a cat-like way, of course and played by the always slightly off kilter Simone Simon) that believes she is descendant from a race of people who turn into cats when angry or sexually aroused (though of course that is not mentioned explicitly). We first meet Irena at the zoo where she is sketching a black panther unhappily pacing back and forth in a cage in the old fashioned way of zoos. The film takes place in some mid-western American town, far as I can tell.
Along comes Oliver, played by the always hapless and clueless Kent Smith, and of course he falls in love with Irena. And before he has a chance to realize that maybe this is not such a great idea (Irena's strange beliefs for one), they're married. Soon though, cracks develop in the happy facade of connubial bliss.
Irena, it turns out, has a real problem with jealousy. She fixates on her hubby's co-worker, the equally hapless Jane Randolph as Alice, whom Oliver likes to confide in. Naturally enough, this doesn't go down well with the new bride. And before you know it, all manner of strangeness is lurking about in the shadows. The frightening swimming pool scene alone is worth the price of admission.
Desperate for help, Irena consults the sleaziest psychiatrist in the history of film, Dr. Judd, played by the perennially unsavory Tom Conway. And well, things go even more downhill from there.
I know I reviewed this film somewhere on my blog, but darn if I can find it.
4) THE WOLF MAN (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, Warren William, Bela Lugosi, Patric Knowles and Ralph Bellamy. A great cast well directed by George Waggner. When I was a kid we always referred to Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry 'Wolfman' Talbot no matter what movie he was in. Anyway, this is the film that brought him eternal fame. Though of course, his dad was an even more famous silent film actor and creator of monsters on his own.
Long story short: Lawrence Talbot returns home to Wales to reconcile with his dad played by Claude Rains. I'm sorry, but in no universe that I know of is Claude Rains physically applicable as the father of Lon Chaney, Jr. No way. No how. Plus Rains has some kind of English accent and son Larry speaks pure American. But what the heck, let's move forward to the good stuff.
Before you can roll your eyes, Larry has spied a pretty girl in the local village. Her name is Gwen and she runs an antique shop. Larry buys a cane with - coincidentally - a silver wolf's head from Gwen, just to strike up a conversation. Later, in the dead of night, he is set upon by a 'wolf' in the woods whereupon he beats off the creature with his new wolf's head cane. Unfortunately, not before he is bitten. Uh-oh.
Soon several people are attacked and killed and of course nobody believes Larry when he confesses to being a wolf man. "It's all in your head." However, the local gypsy woman, played by the always wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya knows all and warns Larry that he is doomed. (Or words to that effect.)
In between there's lots of creepy stuff and wolfian transformations and lurking about in the shadows. Great stuff.
A terrific film and the best of the Wolf man series before the whole thing became a kind of gag.
5) THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) Another Val Lewton creepy-fest, again directed by Jacques Tourneur, this time starring Dennis O'Keefe (I know - huh?) and Margo, the actress with one name. The screenplay is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, which is kind of interesting in and of itself.
No, Dennis O'Keefe doesn't turn into a leopard. Get that out of your mind right away. It's kind of a deceptive title when you think about it, but maybe they wanted to give their intended audience an immediate mental image.
Anyway, the setting is a town in New Mexico which sports a nightclub which sports an act which features a real live leopard. Dennis O'Keefe is the guy whose brilliant idea this was. Sure enough, the leopard (more a panther) escapes and begins ravaging the countryside. Or does he?
When several people are mauled, the obvious conclusion is that the leopard did it. Well, I mean, stands to reason. But soon enough, it's obvious that the poor cat is getting a bum rap. Well, except for the first attack in which a young girl is killed in one of the most frightening film sequences I've ever seen. So much so, that when I was a kid, I spent years afraid to watch this film again precisely because of this sequence - it scared me to death. And yet, if you ask, well what did they show, Yvette, that scared you so much?
My answer: Some blood yes, but that's about it. (It's where the blood shows up that impacts.) In the scene we do not see the cat at all. We just hear it as it chases the victim down and...well, I won't spoil it for you guys who may be unfamiliar with it. And probably you won't think all that much of the scene, inured as most of us are by the unchecked blood and guts of later films. I will say this, I've yet to see anything as frightening, made more so by the fact that most of it happens (except for the sound effects) in our imagination.
A so/so film worth finding and watching just for this scene alone. Oh, and also if you like films about a serial killer who gets turned on by a leopard attack. Hey, it takes all kinds.