Monster movies. Sci-fi movies. Horror movies. For all the special effects they can conjure up today, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. BoomerCafé contributor Alan Paul from Hawthorne, New Jersey, writes for us about The Horror, The Horror.
With another Halloween approaching, I have a small confession to make: I love horror movies. I’m not talking about the so-called slice-and-dice genre which became de rigueur horror during the last couple decades of the 20th Century. The kind of horror movies that I loved, and still love to this day, are the ones upon which this baby boomer was weaned, as a mere tyke lurching uncertainly toward puberty, and fearfully checking under the bed each night as I concluded my evening prayers.
Bela Lugosi was a favorite. Lugosi wasn’t simply playing Dracula — he was Dracula. There was an innate undeadness and blood-lustiness about his interpretation of the Count that clearly showed through, each and every time he donned the cape on screen. And he actually looked two-hundred years old!
Owing to today’s social media and the instant information the internet provides about everything, we can gather virtually every item of minutia that exists about today’s actors. Back in the day of Bela Lugosi, we knew virtually nothing about him, or Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or the other horror movie stars of the mid-twentieth century. For all we knew, they actually were the creatures they portrayed on the screen.
Lon Chaney Jr. will always be the Wolfman to me. Though he never developed the pure acting chops of his father, who was one of the great actors of his time, his portrayal of the ill-fated Larry Talbot, in the 1941 classic The Wolf Man, was dead-on. He played Talbot/Wolfman with such angst and pathos that one couldn’t help but feel his own pain and suffering as he was inflicting pain and suffering on others. After Larry is bitten by a werewolf, he eventually finds his way to the caravan of gypsy fortune-teller Maleva, who confirms his dire fate.
Maleva is brilliantly played by delightfully spooky character-actor Maria Ouspenskaya, who soulfully recites the ominous werewolf ode to the canine-cursed Talbot: “Even a man who is pure in heart; And says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms; And the autumn moon is bright.” Chaney endured countless hours in the makeup room for the time-lapse photography scenes of his transformations, which represented state-of-the-art special effects for their time.
But as good as Lugosi and Chaney Jr. were at their craft, the undisputed heavyweight champ of the old-time horror classics was Boris Karloff. Contrary to popular belief, Dr. Frankenstein did not create the Frankenstein monster; Boris Karloff did. His portrayal of the powerful but childlike and lonely creature set a standard that still dominates in the present day. Pictures of Karloff in full monster makeup embodied one of the iconic images of the 20th Century, and remains as powerful as ever well into the 21st. Like iconic historical figures in other endeavors — Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and Albert Einstein come quickly to mind — the images are as fresh and relevant today as when these transcendent individuals were in their primes.
Horror was far from horrible when I was a kid. Instead, (nightmares and beasts beneath the bed notwithstanding), it left me with vivid and even cherished memories of my sometimes crazy (in a good way) youth.