One of my favorite traditions of the Halloween season is the month-long celebration of horror films presented by Turner Classic Movies. Rather than give us the usual and repetitive horror fare of the last 25 years, TCM puts its emphasis on vintage films from the 1930s through to the 1980s.
This year’s horror slate from TCM is no different. The most recent film is Brainstorm, a 1983 release that starred Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken. Instead, TCM gives us some of the classics from Universal Studios, the color films from Hammer, and a number of little-seen but interesting movies from the 1960s and seventies. It all begins on Friday, October 2nd, with a tripleheader hosted by the terrific writer, David J. Skal, who will introduce the original Dracula, the 1958 favorite House on Haunted Hill, and the classic from 1963, The Haunting.
Rather than put the spotlight on some of the most familiar horror films that TCM will feature, let’s take a look at some lesser-known movies that rarely receive airtime but are still good films that are worth watching. Eight of these movies, in particular, have grabbed our attention. Let’s take a closer look, while also taking note of the days that they will air on TCM.
Mark of the Vampire
(Airing on October 9th at 11 pm Eastern and October 14th at 5:15 pm Eastern)
While not as well-known as the original Dracula, Mark of the Vampire in some ways exceeds the more famous film. Debuting in 1935, the film has better and more advanced, creative camerawork, along with an atmosphere that is more ghoulish and eerie than Dracula.
Directed by Tod Browning, the story of Mark of the Vampire involves a nobleman who is murdered in his castle. A professor knowledgeable in the occult suspects that a vampire is responsible for the crime. Some of the town residents believe that Count Mora, played by Bela Lugosi, is responsible for the crime.
Not only is Lugosi good in his follow-up role as a vampire, but he is also quite believable, even if many of his spoken lines were stripped from the final cut. His co-star, Carroll Borland, is also quite good as Count Mora’s daughter, Luna, even though she was a very inexperienced actress at the time, and still taking drama classes at Berkeley.
Mark of the Vampire created controversy because the original script featured a theme of incest, specifically in the form of a sexual relationship between Count Mora and his daughter. The recent imposition of the Hays Code, which severely restricted the content of films, particularly horror films, translated into extra scrutiny for Mark of the Vampire. The censors would have none of the theme of incest and demanded that Browning eliminate any indication of an on-screen romance between father and daughter.
The ending of the film also created controversy because of its disappointing and anti-climactic nature, but other than that, the movie is well done. Mark of the Vampire stands on its own as a worthy piece of horror. Browning’s sets are visually stunning, especially the scenes in the cemetery. Browning’s determined direction (a vast improvement over his work with Dracula), coupled with the presence of Lugosi, give this film a solid place in horror annals.
(Airing on October 12th at 6 am Eastern)
This 1966 release is one of the most fascinating of the horror movies produced by Hammer Films. Rather than rely on the traditional monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy or The Wolf Man, The Reptile introduces something different, a female monster with a mix of human and snakelike characteristics.
The cast lacks a big-name quality, but the actors are highly capable; Ray Barrett, Jennifer Daniel, and Michael Ripper, carry the story forward. When Barrett’s brother dies mysteriously, he and his wife inherit his cottage in a countryside village. The couple finds the villagers completely unwelcoming, to the point that a local doctor recommends that they leave town immediately. Determined to live in the brother’s cottage, the couple insists on staying. To complicate matters, some of the locals begin to die under mysterious circumstances. The coroner determines the causes of death as a series of heart attacks, each one unrelated to the other, but that explanation is treated with skepticism by the couple. They decide to remain in the village and conduct their own investigation.
One of the strengths of The Reptile is the creature itself, which was created by Hammer’s legendary makeup man, Roy Ashton. Using a mold taken from actual snakeskin, Ashton created a monster that is realistic and fierce. Director John Gilling only adds to the success of the monster by waiting until the final act of the film to reveal it; there is no feeling of disappointment when the reptilian monster, played by Jacquelyn Pierce, appears for the first time. The look of The Reptile would become iconic over time, in part because of the frequency with which the creature appeared within the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland.
In many ways, The Reptile is an overachieving film. Originally intended as a B-movie that was filmed back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile shared many of the same sets as the zombie production. Thankfully, the sets were sufficiently moody and atmospheric, and work well for both films. While The Reptile is not quite a classic, it is one of Hammer’s hidden gems and a must-see film from 1960s horror culture.
Carnival of Souls
(Airing on October 16th at 12:15 pm Eastern)
Filmed for under $40,000, this 1962 film is one whose quality far exceeds its budget. Little known Candace Hilligoss stars as Mary, who has somehow survived a Kansas car crash that killed two other women and has now moved to Salt Lake City, where she sees an older, pale-faced man who continually stalks her. She also has visions of other ghoulish figures, all of whom are similarly pale. At times, Mary finds herself in a strange trance, where she can see living people, but they cannot see or hear her. All of this strange activity seems connected to the site of a carnival, which is now deserted.
Filmed in black and white, Carnival of Souls has a Night of the Living Dead feel to it. The film drips with creepiness, creating an atmosphere that is intensely foreboding. For that, much of the credit goes to director Herk Harvey, who would never again make a feature film, instead spending much of his time making educational films and serving as a teacher of film production.
In playing the lead role, Hilligoss is quite good, as is most of the no-name cast. There are quite a few jump scares that will jar the viewer, only adding to the fun. Carnival of Souls is an example of how a good horror movie can be made for relatively little money, while also creeping you to the bone. It is a cult classic—and with good reason.
(Airing on October 16th at 4:45 pm)
Studio financial trouble and general bad luck kept this cult classic out of theaters for three and a half years, and when it finally debuted in 1968, it was mostly restricted to drive-in theaters. It then became a lost film, available only through grainy video copies, but all of that changed in 2012, when Spider Baby was fully restored to all of its original black-and-white brilliance.
Spider Baby gives us the intersection of generations, as the talents of a fading legend, Lon Chaney, cross paths with a very young Sid Haig, who would later become a horror icon. In what was essentially his last good film, Chaney stars as the caregiver of three children left alone because of the death of their father. The children, two girls and a boy, are the products of an inbred family and the victims of a strange disease that causes them to regress mentally. Now residing with the children in a dilapidated mansion, Chaney must try to keep the trio out of trouble while also keeping the local authorities at bay. Difficulties soon come Chaney’s way when some relatives visit the family and announce their intentions to take ownership of the mansion.
Spider Baby has its flaws, some of which were caused by the inexperience of first-time director Jack Hill, who had to work within the confines of a tiny $60,000 budget. Thankfully, the good moments outweigh the bad ones, as Hill succeeds in creating a black of comedy that is also filled with genuine horror. Hill shows a willingness to tackle taboo subjects like cannibalism and necrophilia, all the while presenting us with a full cast of bizarre and unpredictable characters. The acting is quite good, especially from Chaney. He gives us a sympathetic portrayal, showing us a man who is caught between his desire to discourage and hide the sinful activity of the children and his feelings of genuine love for them. Ultimately, Chaney’s character hopes that he can save the children, but the arrival of the long-lost relatives makes that desire difficult.
There is no doubt that Hill’s film is weird, full of oddball characters that seem like they belong on a remote island by themselves, and not in the rural South where they can do harm to their neighboring citizens. But with the strangeness also comes an enticing movie full of horror and humorous moments, along with an important late-career performance from a legend of the genre.
(Airing on October 17th at 12:15 am Eastern)
Anthology films are often treated with an air of dismissal, but Black Sabbath deserves more than a wave of the hand. The great Boris Karloff, with a mix of creepiness, comedy and gusto, introduces each of the three stories. And then to cap off the production, Karloff appears in one of the segments, called “The Wurdulak,” in which he plays a vampire for the first and only time in his career.
One of the other stories follows the adventure of a young nurse who tends to a dying old woman before becoming harangued by a seemingly reanimated corpse. The other segment features a modern day prostitute, a subject matter considered taboo by many film observers even in the 1960s, being plagued by a series of telephone calls. The unknown man placing the calls is somehow able to see every move she makes, foreshadowing the kind of stalker that we would see in the opening of the 1996 film, Scream.
In The Wurdulak, Karloff plays a family patriarch who leaves the house and is bitten by a vampire, thus turning him into one of the undead creatures. We’re so used to seeing actors like Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, and Christopher Lee in this role, so it’s a bit jarring to see someone like Karloff, more familiar as a monster, body snatcher, or mad scientist, taking on the challenges of vampire portrayal. Not surprisingly, Karloff is very effective, completely sinister and evil in the role, making me wonder why he didn’t take on more vampire roles over the course of his long and prolific career.
Throughout The Wurdulak and the entire film for that matter, director Mario Bava does great work in laying out very colorful and decorative sets while creating a deep and chilling atmosphere. Bava’s use of color is especially brilliant, at a time when black-and-white was still dominating much of the industry. The end result is an entertaining film that has plenty of suspense, along with its share of thrills and twists.
(Airing on October 26th at 9:45 pm Eastern)
Though it’s not regarded as a Vincent Price classic, Madhouse is a very decent old-fashioned, British horror film that tells the story of an aging actor, Paul Toombs, who was once known as “Dr. Death.” Played by Price, Toombs has suffered through a nervous breakdown, spent time in an institution, and is now making a comeback, only to have murder spring up all around him. Suspicion immediately falls on Price’s character, but other suspects will soon come to the forefront.
This low-budget film marked Price’s final appearance for the now defunct American International Pictures (AIP), a successful run that began with the release of House of Usher 14 years earlier. The cast also features another horror legend in Peter Cushing and a capable horror veteran in Robert Quarry, who reprises his costumed attire from Count Yorga in one memorable scene. But Price is clearly the star of the show. As an unexpected bonus, Price does some actual singing toward the end of the film.
Thanks to the presence of Price, Cushing, and Quarry, all of whom are typically excellent, Madhouse delivers its share of macabre moments and mystery. Only some slow pacing and a questionable ending detract from the final product, but fans who like Price and appreciate early 1970s horror, will enjoy Madhouse for its sleek production, its surprising twists, and its persistent level of mystery.
Dracula AD, 1972
(Airing on October 27th at 4:45 am Eastern)
For some reason, this 1972 film has been much criticized, sometimes cited as one of the worst releases from Hammer Films. The derision is befuddling to this writer. This is an entertaining film, one that actually ranks in the upper half of Hammer selections.
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are on their usual game, playing Von Helsing and Dracula respectively, but the most impressive effort is turned in by a young Christopher Neame. Better known for his work in James Bond films, Neame is outstanding as Johnny Alucard, the outspoken leader of a group of young London residents. Unlike the others in the rebellious group, which include Stephanie Beacham and Caroline Munro, Alucard is completely obsessed with Satan and committing acts of evil. In one scene, Neame’s Alucard leads a black mass at an abandoned church, creating some of the movie’s most indelible imagery.
Dracula AD 1972 does a good job of balancing old world characters against the modern scene of London, with plenty of period scenery, fashion, and language. In the wrong hands, this film could have been very campy, but it instead delivers a serious and sophisticated story. The filming is done skillfully, with good sets, some Gothic imagery, and solid performances across the board. This is a very good film, and one that should be seen by all fans of vampire movies.
I Walked With a Zombie
(Airing on October 31st at 1:30 am Eastern)
This 1943 Val Lewton production is arguably the best of the producer’s all-too-short career at RKO Radio Pictures. The film tells the story of a young Canadian nurse who has been summoned to a Caribbean island so that she can care for the wife of a local sugar plantation owner. The wife, who has been acting strangely, needs constant supervision. While caring for her, the nurse falls in love with the husband, but she remains committed to finding a cure for his wife, even if it means dabbling in voodoo rituals.
With an excellent screenplay written by Curt Siodmak, director Jacques Tourneur succeeds in creating an atmospheric movie, full of mystery and suspense. The film reaches a high point with a hypnotic scene that captures a voodoo ceremony, beautifully shot by Tourneur and his crew. Unlike most of the other Lewton efforts, the horror of the film is not merely suggested, but is actually shown in the form of the walking dead.
Although I Walked With a Zombie is now considered an excellent film, critics did not take to it upon its initial release. Such criticism has not held up well over time; most contemporary horror critics now regard it as a classic of the 1940s. With his brilliant use of light and shadows, his ability to build tension, and the full support of Lewton, Tourneur succeeds in giving us perhaps the best horror film to come from the studio known as RKO.
All of these films deserve some love this Halloween season. Ranging from the 1930s through the 1970s, this selection of movies gives us a little bit of everything: vampires, ghouls, zombies, and deranged characters, along with four of the greatest horror actors to ever live, Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney, and Price. And there are plenty of other worthwhile movies to pick from on the Turner Classic calendar There aren’t many better ways to spend the month of October than watching a diverse array of vintage films and old-time classics from the comfort of your couch.
Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.
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