October has come again. As many people far wiser and more experienced than I, have recognized, there is some tremor, some power, that separates October from the rest of the year. Ray Bradbury, one of the most eloquent and joyful inhabitants of the “October Country” described this one-twelfth of the year as the
October Country…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.
One of the reasons for this eerie sense that permeates throughout October’s thirty-one days is due to the last day of the month–Hallowe’en, when, in spite of all our modern sophistication and technocracy, we still hold on to a little of the old belief in spirits and goblins and witches and the returned presence of the dead. As with other holidays, Hallowe’en has gathered to itself a host of traditions with one of these being monster or horror movies.
Monster or horror movies have a long and fascinating history in and of themselves, as the first films that can genuinely lay a claim to the title were shown to Parisian audiences in 1895 through the ingenuity of French magician turned actor/director/producer, Georges Méliès. Horror or monster movies quickly crossed the pond and American audiences were treated to Faust and Marguerite in 1900, after which it became a stable of the newly blossoming cinema in both America and Europe. From the Silent Era, through the Golden and Silver Ages of the Thirties and Forties, to the advent of color and atomic mutations in the Fifties and the “exploitation” films of the Sixties and Seventies and beyond, every decade has had its gorge of the horrific and the monstrous on the silver screen. It may very well be that every decade concentrated the particular fears of its own time and placed those fears in theatres through monsters and metaphors so that the inhabitants of that specific time could face their fears, much similarly to how, as it has been argued, the Japanese came to terms with the Bombs through Godzilla.
Regardless of the truth of that particular hypothesis, one fact which cannot be disputed is that since their genesis in 1895, horror and monster movies have gradually become more and more gruesome so that now, a monster or horror movie is considered to be a disappointment unless it contains the pre-requisite amount of gore and gruesome deaths. The initial reaction to The Blair Witch Project in 1999 provides a vivid example of this reality. After receiving initial praise for its genuine suspense and ability to generate fear, the movie came under withering criticism for having no gruesome deaths in front of the camera and for never allowing the Blair Witch to be seen. The film had to wait some amount of time before audiences realized that it was a success precisely because of those supposed weaknesses. But, perhaps, the people who complained because they felt that they had been cheated out of a genuine horror movie are not to be blamed. As G.K. Chesterton once remarked, an overstimulated nerve must continually receive greater and greater stimulation in order to have the slightest sensation at all. Horror movies in the Seventies, especially, began giving audiences the shock treatment with “slasher movies.” Although the roots of these films could be seen in the Sixties, such as in the films of William Castle, their true beginning came in 1974 with Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Slasher films truly came into their own four years later when John Carpenter presented movie goers to Halloween. The film is tame by todays standards; although the Shape kills five people (four of them on screen) with the use of a butcher knife, none of the deaths are gory. Proving Chesterton right, however, Halloween inspired such Eighties films as Friday the Thirteenth, The Prowler, Christmas Evil and Prom Night which tried to outdo Carpenter’s film by mixing in blood and more gruesome deaths for their victims. When Halloween II was released in 1981, it sought to take inspiration from these movies and thus provided its audiences with more horrendous deaths.
This race to overstimulate the nerves of the audience has continued to the present time, so that now horror movies such as The Strangers and You’re Next are simply excuses to kill as many people as possible. Rather than tell a story these movies seem more intent on simply evoking disgust among their viewers. The older movies, on the other hand–particularly the old Universal monster movies–give more attention to the story and the characters which inhabit those stories; revulsion is not given a single thought and even suspense, which the first Halloween and The Blair Witch Project did to perfection, is not their sole purpose. What the classic Universal monster movies deal with are universal conditions and themes that have plagued the human condition since Eden. There is a reason why such films Hostel are now in the five dollar bin at Wal-Mart while the Universal monsters have received yet another release this October-time.
Todd Browning’s Dracula, released on St. Valentine’s Day of 1931, for example, concerns the age-old and never-ending battle between good and evil. More importantly, it is a story about good unquestionably triumphing over evil, even though the evil in question masks itself in the guise of exotic charm and dark romance. Bela Lugosi, fresh from bringing Bram Stoker’s vampire to life on Broadway, succeeded again behind the camera, entrapping women into his embrace through his dark allure. In fact, Lugosi’s iconic portrayal of the Count, though clichéd now with his tuxedo and heavy Hungarian accent, was in 1931 a drastic new take on the vampire, being able to blend into London society rather than being the rat-like plague carrying ghoul of 1922’s Nosferatu. For all his charm and subtle eroticism–and, perhaps, because of it–Dracula is the anti-Christ, drinking human blood to prolong his mortal existence and forcing Lucy and Mina to drink his blood to turn them into his brides, perverting the reality and meaning of the Blood of Christ. Only sunlight and the crucifix, both of which stand for greater religious truths, can drive him away, a fact which is powerfully presented in two of the movie’s scenes: once, in Castle Dracula, the crucifix prevents the vampire from attacking the young lawyer, Renfield; in the second, the crucifix is used by Professor Van Helsing to drive Dracula out of Dr. Seward’s house. In the film’s climax, Dracula is forced to retreat from the rising sun allowing Professor Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan) to drive a stake through his heart.
Released the same year, James Whale’s production of Frankenstein deals with man’s hubris and the consequences which come from meddling in those things which men should leave alone. Through the course of the film, the point is made clear that nature has her order and will not suffer to have aberrations–physical or moral–thrust upon her. What elevates Frankenstein, is conjunction with this theme, is the performance of Boris Karloff as the Monster, the role which cemented his place in cinema history. Karloff’s genius was to play the Monster as a mute “child” desperately trying to understand the world into which it has been brought and in which it can never fully participate. The audience understands that “the dear old Monster” never asked to be brought back to life and that it was the arrogance and callousness of Henry Frankenstein which made it suffer. The tragedy of the film is exacerbated when it is realized that it is Frankenstein’s arrogance and desertion of his creation are the very things which lead the Monster to becoming monstrous. Nature, through the Monster, extracts her revenge against both the creator and the creation.
If Frankenstein deals with human pride, The Wolf Man takes as its subject the evil which happens to good men. Like Oedipus, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is, at heart, a decent man–not a saint but not a villain; in fact, Larry proves himself to be selfless and heroic within the first twenty minutes of the film. Like Job, however, Larry is forced to suffer terribly through his curse of lycanthrope. The film reinforces the truth of evil occurring to good men, not only in the suffering of the protagonist, but also through the piece of rhyme which the villages, at several points, have occasion to recite:
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
More terrifyingly, as Larry discovers, the evil which can strike even good men may not be some blind external force which arbitrarily chooses victims; instead, the evil may reside within himself. As his father, Sir John (Claude Raines), tells him, the legend of the werewolf is, at heart, very simple, since it concerns the good and evil within every man’s soul wherein, “evil takes the form of an animal.”
The old monster pictures did more, though, then playing the universal themes of man’s nature. In addition to that feat, the old terror pictures, as Karloff dubbed them, were infused with a mature pathos which allowed the audience to have sympathy for the monsters (even Dracula, to some extent), while still making it clear that these things were, in fact, monsters and that, therefore, their inevitable destruction at the end of the films, was good and right. Nevertheless, the tragedy which deeply imbued all of the classic monsters allowed that a tear could be shed at their destruction, even when it was acknowledged to be necessary and right. There was, in a word, a balance in the old movies. Modern films in the genre, in contrast, have eradicated that balance by seemingly eradicating the idea of there being monsters. Lugosi’s Dracula may have looked human (in contrast to the more traditional vampire, Baron Orlak, in Nosferatu) but he was still uncompromisingly portrayed as a creature of darkness, a soulless being (which is why vampires cast no reflections in mirrors). Modern vampires, on the other hand, are oftentimes portrayed as the heroes, such as what happened in the Twilight series. While there are villainous vampires in Twilight, their villainy is not determined by their vampirism; there are, in fact, good and bad vampires, just as there are good and bad humans. Vampirism, in this light, is just another mode of existence which can be not that different from being human except that, as a vampire, one is immortal, a possessor of a perfect physique and superpowers. I, Frankenstein, did the same thing to the Monster, turning the pathetic and tragic creature, into a well-proportioned and muscled superhero who destroys CGI gargoyles. This blurring of good and evil in the monsters has even brought about the villainization of the old heroes; in The Dracula Tapes, it is Professor Van Helsing who is made out to be the villain while the Count is the soul of enlightenment and nobility. The theme of modern monster movies, in this day of “xi,” “xem,” and “zer,” is that it is thinking which one decides one’s monstrousness and not one’s own nature. This, in turn, leads us to a deeper point. While sympathy could be had for the classic monsters (since, due to the universal themes within the films, the proper reaction to the monsters is, “There, save for the grace of God, go I”) there was no doubt that the monsters represented an aberration that could not exist in the natural world. The monsters, therefore, stood in opposition to all natural things, including man. But, in modern monster movies, if the monsters are no longer intrinsically unnatural and wrong, they no longer stand in sharp contrast to Man, thereby, casting doubt as to the naturalness (and goodness) of Man; everything is, instead, subdue under the tyranny of relativism. More than that, our culture, through this shift, has shown its apathy towards the ordinary virtues and romance of the ordinary things; rather than the old and ordinary Van Helsing, we are called to emulate Edward Cullins because he is young and beautiful and full of power. Our culture has forgotten what G.K. Chesterton reminded the world in his 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, namely that it is in the ordinary things that one finds true romance and not in raw power or passing fads. And monsters, as unnatural beings, can only be brief, like a comet in the air, before they are extinguished by their own power and rarity.
Balance, in the Aristotelian sense, is one of the forgotten components of virtue. The classics monster pictures understood this need for balance and created masterpieces, modern day Greek plays that speak to the universal themes of man. Hallowe’en is the time when witches and goblins and spirits roam the world; Man is needed again as well. The old films may be a step in seeing again the necessity of and the goodness of Man as he is.