It being Friday the 13th as I begin writing this, I have a small confession to make: I love horror movies; always have, always will. Now, 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. If you ask me, there is nothing particularly enjoyable, or enlightening, or entertaining (or frightening, even, truth be told) about watching actors become detached from various and sundry blood-spewing appendages by some fiend wearing a hockey mask or a leather hood, or a clown costume. (One used to call male thespians “actors” and female thespianettes “actresses,” but I guess that’s no longer politically correct. So when I type actor in this post, you readers are charged with the responsibility of deciding amongst yourselves if I’m referring to a male actor or a female actor. How does one make that determination? Damned if I know. I wonder if this also applies to non-human thespians. Was Lassie, for example, an actor? Or Flipper? Or Black Beauty? Gets a tad confusing, doesn’t it?)
Anyway… The kind of horror movies that I loved, and love to this day, are the ones upon which I was weaned, as a mere tyke lurching uncertainly toward puberty, and dutifully checking in the closet and under the bed each night as I concluded my evening prayers: “God bless Mommy and Daddy and Grandma—both of them. And everybody else. You know who I mean… I don’t have to name them all, do I? And—please God—keep Dracula away from my window. Especially during the summer, when it’s open. I’m not sure if this garlic necklace is going to work, and I’d rather not have to wear it because it smells bad. And people are starting to notice. Ame—oh—and the Wolfman, too! Jesus! Definitely no Wolfman! Ever! I have garlic, but where am I gonna get silver bullets..? Amen.” Those prayers must have worked, because I’m reasonably sure Bela Lugosi never bit my neck, and I’m quite certain that Lon Chaney, Jr. didn’t eat me. Except in my nightmares; had more than a few of those back then. But somehow the tradeoff was worth it, because those old high-contrast, black-and-white horror films were so cool, and so much fun, and so friggin’ scary, that I rarely ever missed one.
There was a local television series in the New York/Metropolitan area back then on WOR-TV called Million Dollar Move. MDM was like the initial incarnation of the concept of on-demand, which has become so popular today, though maybe not with TV advertisers. (If you ask me, on-demand is the greatest invention since Liquid Prell.) The deal with MDM was that they would show the same great old film every day for an entire week; there may well have been matinees on Saturday and Sunday, in addition, bringing the grand total of times a particular movie was shown in one week to something like nine. Whenever MDM was airing Dracula, or Frankenstein, or the Wolfman, or the Mummy. Godzilla… King Kong… Mighty Joe Young, or a mangled-and-bloody handful of others, I was there on the floor in front of the Philco as often as I could get away with it. “Move back from the TV,” Mom would demand. “Do you want to go blind!?” I didn’t want to go blind, so I moved back, but when she saw what I was watching, she’d say, “Again!?” while shaking her head and lifting her eyes heavenward.
Heaven couldn’t offer much assistance, though, if you were in the unholy vicinity of Count Dracula and his legion of undead dudes. Oh, a crucifix might hold him at bay for a few moments, and accurately aimed Holy Water might give him a wicked rash for a bit, but eventually he was going to get you. Bela Lugosi was the one of the least likely Count Dracula’s of all time. Not only did he not have ferocious fangs which glinted grotesquely in the moonlight, it was, in fact, highly questionable as to whether he had any teeth at all. And he didn’t possess any of the super-powers that the current legion of undead actors exhibit. Sure, he could turn into a bat, when the spirit moved him but, let’s face it, that cardboard cutout bat didn’t really scare anybody (with the possible exception of the 1930s-era special effects coordinator, whose job it was to make that cardboard bat look like anything but cardboard, and who had an extremely difficult time fulfilling that responsibility). But if Count Dracula were to say to you, “Look… into my ice!” (in his thick middle-European accent), and you did (well, really, you had to), sooner or later you were undead meat. Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula scared the bejesus out of me as a kid, and his portrayal can creep me out, even today. Why? I don’t know, but he haunted my dreams for decades.
Bela Lugosi wasn’t simply playing Dracula; he was Dracula. There was an innate undeadness and blood-lustiness (“I never drink… wine”) about his interpretation of the Count that clearly shown through, each and every time he donned the cape on screen. And he actually looked two-hundred years old! These days horror is all about CGI, and, while today’s Draculas can do things that the Draculas of old couldn’t even imagine, we all know that it begins and ends in a computer. Sure, it’s impressive. But is it scary? I don’t think so, because we’re acutely aware that it is merely the artful manipulation of mega-doses of ones and zeroes. Additionally, owing to 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, we knew almost nothing about Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and the other horror movie stars of the mid-twentieth century. For all we knew, they actually were the creatures they portrayed on the screen. And that’s what made them so frightening to us as kids.
When I was about ten or twelve, Mom made me a Dracula costume for Halloween. My mother was a seamstress back in the day, and a very good one at that. I remember her telling me that during the 1940s she and a couple of her sisters worked operating sewing machines for an undergarment manufacturer in their hometown of Hackensack, NJ constructing brassieres. Later, when my family moved to Lodi, NJ, she took a job down the street at the Bridge Casket Company, sewing coffin interiors. This is what she fashioned the majority of my Dracula costume from. (So, essentially, I was an undead wearing a dead bed. Pretty cool.) I remember that I had a shiny black satin cape, which was beautifully lined on the inside with intricately textured white satin. I formed reasonably convincing vampire fangs out of white plastic, and I seem to recall that I won the first prize at the St. Joseph’s Elementary School Halloween Party that year. Though the nuns were clearly reluctant to give it to me. Bela Lugosi died way back in 1956. Or did he? I’m not so sure.
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. Chaney Jr. played Talbot/Wolfman with such angst and pathos that one couldn’t help but feel his pain and suffering, even as he was inflicting pain and suffering on others. In the film, Talbot learns of the death of his brother, and goes back to the family home in Wales, where his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (played by creepy Claude Rains, who had inhabited the title role in the 1933 horror classic, The Invisible Man), still resides. Larry meets a local lass named Gwen who has an antique shop, where he purchases a walking stick crowned with a silver wolf’s head. The girl, whom he becomes romantically involved with, tells him that the cane’s silver handle represents a werewolf: a man who morphs into a wolf on certain nights of the year. Of course Larry is soon bitten by a werewolf, which eventually leads him to the caravan of gypsy fortune-teller, Maleva, who confirms his dire fate. In fact, it had been Maleva’s own werewolf son who inflicted Talbot’s life-altering bite.
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 wolfbane blooms; And the autumn moon is bright.” Wow! Freak me out, why don’t you! Of course, the pure-in-heart Larry Talbot becomes a werewolf himself, as soon as the wolfbane blossoms display themselves to the autumn moon, and the killing begins. Talbot has memories of his hideous transformation and horrible transgressions, which haunt him for the remainder of the film. He cannot contain himself when in wolf-mode and eventually even turns upon poor, lovesick Gwen. But Larry’s father, who witnesses the attack, bludgeons the creature to death with the silver wolf-head cane, unaware that he has killed his own son until, in death, the creature’s features slowly morph back to those of the younger Talbot. Chaney, Jr. 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. Frakenstein did not create the Frakenstein 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 great historical figures in other endeavors—Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and Albert Einstein come quickly to mind—their images are as fresh and relevant today as when these transcendent individuals had been in their primes.
Loosely based upon the novel by Mary Shelley, which was first published anonymously in London in 1818, and later reissued under Shelley’s byline in 1823, the 1931 film Frankenstein was an instant hit with critics and movie-goers alike. The film spawned several sequels featuring Karloff as the monster, and countless imitators throughout the numerous decades since. Though the film justly belongs to Karloff, it is Colin Clive, as Dr. Frankentsein himself in the original film, who utters one of the most famous lines in moviedom. When the compilation of body parts from corpses that he expertly joined together into human form is initially electrically animated in the lab, Clive, his face contorted in elation tinged with notes of fear and foreboding, shouts grotesquely, “It’s alive!” The scene comprises what is surely one of the most chilling moments in cinema history. Boris Karloff went on to star in The Mummy, and a vast portfolio of other horror films, well into his golden years, cementing him for all eternity as the Dean of the horror film actors’ fraternity.
There was one other transcendent horror icon from my youth who was perhaps the most influential but least likely of them all. John Zacherle was a local Philadelphia area media personality on WCAU-TV in the mid-1950s. His second gig on the channel was as host of an afternoon show called Shock Theater. He portrayed a ghoulish character named Roland, who lived in a crypt with his wife “My Dear” and a lab assistant named—what else—Igor. Zacherle, as Roland, introduced the horror film of the day, and would frequently break into the film with some brief insanely comic skit, while the movie soundtrack continued to play in the background. Zacherle was very close friends with another Philadelphia area radio and TV personality, who would go on, over his amazing career, to change the face of television forever. Dick Clark would occasionally have Zacherle join him on road tours of his up-and-coming American Bandstand program, and he gave Zach the moniker “The Cool Ghoul.”
When CBS purchased WCAU in 1958, they brought Zacherle to New York, where he and Shock Theater, renamed Zacherley At Large (CBS added the “y” to the end of his name in the credits, and it stuck) became a fixture for many years to come. Zach and his shtick bounced around among several local NY TV stations, including WOR and WPIX, eventually leading to the show Chiller Theater, which he hosted into the mid-1960s. Zacherley continued cropping up on the NY airwaves, in one guise or another, for many years. In 2010, the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia inducted him into their Hall of Fame. I distinctly remember one episode of Chiller Theater, which featured the 1958 sci-fi classic, The Blob. Most of that film has faded completely from memory, but for two things. The first of these was Zach’s frequent cut-ins to the film, which saw him sitting on the edge of a kiddie pool, stroking, petting, cursing and cajoling what appeared to be a fifty-pound burlap sack filled nearly to bursting with Jell-O. The other thing I remember about The Blob was the fact that it was the very first starring role for a young actor named Steve McQueen.
Horror was far from horrible, when I was a kid. Instead, nightmares and beasts beneath the bed notwithstanding, it left me with some vivid and even cherished memories of my sometimes crazy (in a good way) youth. And, over the years, I’ve even developed a taste for garlic.