Just keep saying to yourself: “It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie…”
—Advertising campaign for William Castle’s Straight-Jacket (1964)
Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula may be the first coffee-table horror movie, reenacting on an opulent budget the cheap thrills once associated with drive-in triple features. The film starts at full throttle, whirling through a fifteenth-century Romanian battlefield, Dr. Seward’s nineteenth-century London madhouse, and the shadowy mazes of Dracula’s castle. To live up to the breathless effects of its first fifteen minutes it must sustain a barrage of optical effects and erotically charged tableaux, leaping wolves and geysers of blood, storms and severed heads, and flurries of cinematic in-jokes.
The onslaught, like most prolonged fireworks exhibits, becomes numbing well before the movie has run its course, but Coppola’s flair for overload has here, after a run of commercial failures, worked in his favor. In an era when most Hollywood productions have the visual grandeur of a TV sitcom, Dracula—widely heralded in the industry as a big financial risk—has become an unexpected success. Its elements may be incongruous, but at least they do not sit still: before you have time to dwell on a particular loose end or fudged transition, you are hit with another superimposition, another visual quote from Gustav Klimt or Jean Cocteau, another deluge of blood, another bare-breasted vampire swirling amid the Transylvanian wasteland.
With all that going on, the plot is sketched in fairly peremptorily, but the narrative possibilities of vampire lore are so intimately familiar that Coppola can get away with casting a commercial blockbuster as a self-consciously postmodernist palimpsest. He does not so much reinvent the horror movie as re-inventory it, directly incorporating images from F.W. Murnau and Tod Browning, compositions and textures from Gustave Moreau and Sergei Eisenstein and Akira Kurosawa. Dracula functions concurrently as a faithful adaptation and a caricatural pastiche, while lining its interstices with portentous contemporary tie-ins (AIDS, drug addiction) and sidebars on fin-de-siècle art, the evolution of the fantasy film, and the sexual subtexts of nineteenth-century fiction.
To provide the film with whatever thematic coherence it has, Coppola transmutes Dracula’s predatory relationship with Mina Harker into a chicly eroticized version of Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights. In Coppola’s version (despite its vaunted fidelity to Bram Stoker’s novel) Dracula has evolved from the noisome, leach-like creature described by Stoker into a dream date whirling his beloved away from a sheltered world populated by repressed Victorians into the cosmopolitan fairyland of the Undead. When Mina does finally drive the stake through Dracula’s heart, it’s defined as an act of love, intended to free him from a debilitating curse. Coppola reverses Stoker’s Manichaean values by recasting the vampire as liberator, the vampire-hunters as neurotic grotesques.
Yet the romantic make-over of Dracula registers as little more than a marketing device designed to exploit the attractiveness of the movie’s youthful cast. While Coppola’s mix of horror and eroticism appears heavily indebted to such marginal European productions as Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1961), Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood (1964), and Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), it lacks the fervor with which those films reveled in the perversity of their imagery. Instead Dracula rolls on a patina of the “feel-good” uplift endemic in recent Hollywood movies.
Dracula’s deepest problem is that for all its playing with the history of the genre, it stirs little sense of dread, barely even a tingle of uncanniness. Once upon a time horror movies generated most of their anxiety through what they held off saying or showing. Even a contemporary gore fest like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead gets most of its scares from anticipation of what will happen to the college kids who unknowingly set loose a horde of Mesopotamian demons in a remote woodland cabin: when the slavering demons actually start gnashing and rending, the mood turns unavoidably farcical. Dracula’s lack of selectivity or restraint undercuts that narrowing of attention which can turn a creak or a gust of wind or a disembodied whisper into a nearly inexhaustible source of anxiety. By laying everything on the table at once—source material and subtext and parodistic reflection—Coppola annihilates the distinction between the normal world and the vampire who subverts it: the King Vampire becomes simply the gaudiest guest at an already excessive party.
Coppola comes closest to the intensity he aims at when he links his version of Stoker’s book to the origin of movies, staging a series of eye-popping effects derived from the shadows-and-mirrors repertoire of early cinema, and going so far as to have the Count escort Mina to an 1890s cinematograph exhibition. The director’s passion for movies certainly carries more conviction than Dracula’s ostensible passion for Mina: here is an obsession we can really believe in, and it is almost enough to give the film an emotional charge that is otherwise absent.
Horror’s cinematic origins are not just a footnote: they are crucial to a genre that seems to define itself by constantly recapitulating everything it has been. Through all the shifts and cataclysms—the rise and fall and return of the werewolf, the seven ages of Dracula, the incursions and permutations of space aliens and demon-possessed children and psycho killers, the Expressionist shadows of the Twenties and Thirties and the bursting entrails of the Seventies and Eighties—we always seem to wind up where we started, with the open coffin and the death ship swarming with rats, the flashes of ominous lightning and the grin of the demon. To watch many horror movies is in some sense to watch the same movie over and over: they are drawn to their past in the same way that their characters are compelled to go back to the ancestral crypt. It is an eternal return to the site of a singular unmodulated shock: a spook mask popping out of darkness. The rest is ornament and variations on a theme, a matter of more masks or bigger masks or more convincingly detailed masks.
The history of cinematic horror would then be simply a gallery of such masks, interchangeable stand-ins for the unseen, speakable substitutes for the unspeakable. The movies take death and evil and replace them with manageable and finally lovable travesties: The Mad Doctor of Market Street, The Beast in the Cellar, Fiend Without a Face. It’s a suspect job, though; even to play with cruelty and fear, with morbidity and corruption, is to be tainted by their aura. Whatever classic status horror films may attain with age—whatever the exalted contributions of directors like F. W. Murnau or Carl Dreyer or the cozy nostalgia that permits Karloff and Lugosi to consort with Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire—the genre tenaciously eludes respectability. Horror is not horror if it does not flirt with impulses beyond domestication, threats (or promises) of a defilement beyond even the most recently demarcated edge.
Whatever refinement is brought to its surfaces, horror must continue to suggest a possibility of real threat, real barbarity. The viewer knows at least by rumor that horror has unpleasant depths, that in its lower reaches it edges (through increasingly unpalatable images of corruption and cannibalism, sacrificial ritual and psychotic rage) toward the possibility of a relation with actual crime: either by depicting it, fomenting it, or even abetting it, as in the case of the Mexican cannibal cultists a few years back who indoctrinated their followers with screenings of John Schlesinger’s voodoo melodrama The Believers.1 The troubling possibility that the jest might crawl too far hovers around even the blandest examples of the genre.
The main direction of the early film industry was toward making movies safer and more wholesome, cleaning up their content while making the theaters themselves cleaner and more brightly lit. By shedding their fleacircus associations, movies could be pitched to a more sensitive and respectable clientele. The keynote was Ascent: the emergence from the underworld of sideshow attractions toward new heights of emotional uplift, epic sweep, even religious inspiration.
But there were from the outset those attracted by a contrary myth of Descent, in which the spectator was not swept away to some place finer, but rather returned to the dank precincts of an evil world at once alien and deeply familiar. It hardly mattered whether the Dark Place was a jungle crawling with alligators, the secret headquarters of an Oriental madman, or the heart of an Egyptian funerary labyrinth. The destination was magnetic, and there would always be a sufficient number willing to be drawn to it half in trance, like the hypnotized Madge Bellamy in White Zombie gliding along toward Bela Lugosi’s satanic sugar mill.
The spectator cedes his volition. His secret delectation is to be trapped, unable to escape from what is to be displayed. He participates in an unbridled voyeurism that preserves the atmosphere of the fairgrounds and carnivals where the earliest movies were shown. The fairground is a symbolic home to which films of terror have often returned, in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Bluebeard and Strangers on a Train. It asserts itself off screen too, in the carnivalesque ballyhoo of producers and distributors, in the unending and unchanging spiel reeled off by the barker standing by the gateway of Avernus: “Witness the most shocking secret rites ever performed!” “The Devil God rises and marks his path with mutilated bodies!” “An entire town bathed in pulsing human blood!”
The culture of horror, such as it is, has always inhered as much in ads and promotional gimmicks and spin-off marketing as in movies. Advertising for horror movies rarely emphasizes the superior quality of script or acting or production. That would already smack too much of choice, would imply that the consumer makes a rational decision. The ads suggest, rather, an obscure imperative. You must see the movie. It has been lying in wait for you, a destiny you must confront or else be haunted ever afterward by residual dread of what you failed to look in the eye. That dread of the movies one has not dared to attend is more potent than any of the terrors that movies can purvey. It borders uneasily on the genuine dread for which the movies substitute their pseudodread.
The undying fairground huckster sells tickets to a world before movies, the world of live tangible horrors: as if the movie images harbored actual monstrosities, like the wax figures in Mystery of the Wax Museum and House of Wax within which are concealed the corpses of murder victims. A favorite publicity stunt of the Fifties and Sixties was to provide stern admonitions and offers of medical treatment to those unable to bear the spectacle: “Warning! We cannot be responsible if you never sleep again!” (The implicit threat was made explicit by B-horror king William Castle, whose crude gimmicks—spooks on wires, electrified seats—restored to movie theaters the risky atmosphere of an amusement park fun house.)
The humorous fiction that the purveyor of the entertainment was unable to take responsibility for it, that the cinematic spectacle might at any moment escape from its confines and wreak unpredictable damage, was paralleled by a long series of movie situations: the killer leopard escaping from the zoo, King Kong breaking free of his chains, or (in the Italian film Demons) monsters emanating from the screen of a theater where a slasher movie is showing.
Beneath the fable of the dangerous show lies the somewhat more ominous (because more plausible) fable of the deranged showman. Certain moments—when the tongue is ripped out of the throat of a suspected witch, or Amazonian cannibals subject tourists to meticulously simulated mutilations—seem designed to elicit the question: What sort of human being would make something like that? The traveling hypnotist who really does saw his victims in half, the sculptor who embalms his models, the surgeon in quest of blood or body parts to restore a lost wife or lover or daughter: Isn’t this a stylized self-portrait of the unknowable film maker to whose care one has been committed?
He might be imagined as a carny operator like the one who in another era hired Tyrone Power as a geek in the last reel of Nightmare Alley. This archetypal manipulator would be an exploitation genius spawned by the midway, reared among grifters and freaks and human embryos pickled in formaldehyde, a mercurial self-made master of transformations under whose primary incarnations—bum check artist, small-time pimp, store-front swindler—lies a secondary menu of darker personae: a voyeur like the crazy bearded painter whose abstractions are always a prelude to rape and murder, a corrupt sadist zeroing in on the innocent and vulnerable with hawklike precision, or the ringleader of the kind of cult his own movies depict, hermetic conspiracies dedicated to abduction, brainwashing, and human sacrifice.
It might appear that the horror subculture has no goal beyond the search—foredoomed, of course—to locate a nadir, to follow the sideshow as it recedes into the depths, uncovering images even more brutal and incoherent than what came before. Yet even in the sleaziest exercise the equation is rarely that simple. If horror as entertainment has its dark side, the dark side also has a reverse. The swamp of horror does not really live up to expectations if it isn’t a prelude to a further transformation into its opposite: if fear is the bass pattern of horror movies, their not always explicit melody is the love of the monstrous.
Evil and destructive forces are placated by being offered their due share of worship, with the implication that they represent a mysterious necessity, without which existence would lack both shape and savor. Classic horror movies tend to depict ordinary life as intolerably flat and banal until invaded by the poetry of the demonic. Evil signals its presence by the exotically beautiful arrangement of lines, colors, and sounds: in its frightening fashion it orders the world, gives meaning to life. The Satanic mass in Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) is an artistic performance which allows the rasp of organ music to vibrate against the ultramodernist angles of Boris Karloff’s Bauhaus chapel; the human sacrifice which is to complete the rite is barely more than a celebratory flourish.
The malefic is not only lovely but primordial. It gives evidence of its proximity to the origin, the omphalos, by hovering around the scrolls, chants, bracelets, tiaras, and sacrificial altars of buried civilizations. In the 1960 Brides of Dracula, the vampire-hunter Dr. Van Helsing defines vampirism as “a survival of one of the ancient pagan religions in their struggle against Christianity,” and the same might be said of the making of vampire movies. Disused mechanisms of thought—no longer employable in the mapping of magical correspondences or the extermination of vengeful spirits—persist, wanly, in the more restricted realm of the horror movie. The hack who might once have annotated a treatise on demonology now writes the scenario for an exorcism picture.
The scenario that he concocts, or dreams, or receives through mediumistic dictation, scrapes at a buried door leading to forbidden realms of savage mythology: human sacrifice, the immolation of children, voluntary castration, sacred prostitution, prophetic schizophrenics, hermaphrodites climbing down through the smoke hole. In Brides of Dracula the newly created vampire forcing her way out of her grave is urged on by an old peasant woman shouting, “Push! Push! Push!” as if assisting at a birth. By the same token the stake driven through the vampire’s heart is “an act of healing.” In an intuitive reenactment of ceremonies whose occasions have long since been forgotten, the boil of evil symbolized by a corrupt heart is lanced, and the site of miasma, of ritual pollution, is cleansed by fire or decapitation.
The archaic is by the same token futuristic. The serial killer adopts the logic of the sacrificial priest or the hunter of heretics, creates a terrestrial paradise out of flayed skin and carved bones arranged in efflorescent mandalic displays. In Demon Seed the computer network becomes animate, buzzing with a newly resynthesized malevolence that ripples through its circuitry like the earth-forming breath of Ra or Baal. In recent decades the frontiers of horror have extended into the imagining of future biological disasters: the devouring creature nesting within the human body in Alien, the invading race of double-sexed extraterrestrials in Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To, the vagina-like cassette drive that opens in James Woods’s belly in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, turning him into a human video player literally raped by media.
The unadulterated horror movie would be that in which the forces of evil succeeded in taking over, the one they would themselves direct. But the audience will never see that one, and must remain content with its uneasy twin, in which the good characters prevent the horror movie’s horror from becoming absolute. Dr. Van Helsing and his kind stem the takeover, slam the door shut, burn the house or the parchment or the ghoul. The virtuous warriors who keep evil at bay are tolerable only because structurally necessary: no way to define night without at least a perfunctory acknowledgment of day.
Does the eternally aged Dracula end up alone with his memories, watching old vampire movies like a retired general who in the end half believes the Hollywood version of World War II? He surely has endless time to kill, just like the child who through interminable meditation on old horror movies begins to collect a lifetime’s supply of cherished images. The manmade monster, the werewolf, the vampire: they are all alike, unkillable. Their persistence might be taken as the emblem of something very like vitality, but other.
Dracula figures, in the iconography of horror, as an image that never stops engendering retellings and variations and resurrections. Odd that the most inexhaustible image should be that of the creature who exhausts, who drains. He is the god of a religion devoid of both hope and faith, offering not the resurrection and the life, but unending life-in-death, neither sleeping nor waking, a perennial trance of not quite satisfied desire. Unlike the god who offers the waters of life—and perhaps in covert suggestion of how unexpectedly hideous it might prove if the doctrine of the body’s resurrection were literally true—Dracula promises the ambivalent pleasures of an eternally prolonged thirst.
One of the implicit terrors of endless life is the endless recurrence of the same sequence of events, like the nightmare that recurred maddeningly in Dead of Night. Spectator and film maker alike are hooked on repetition, just like those movie characters (Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Dana Andrews in Laura, James Stewart in Vertigo) stuck on a particular melody or portrait or hair color. Zita Johann flirtatiously teases her archaeologist admirer in The Mummy: “Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?” In this domain the answer all too often is yes. Amorous fetishists—or, for that matter, fixated aficionados of the horror canon—share a mania for punctual reenactment with the Satanists who wait for the exact phase of the moon and the long-awaited calendar year to perform their hideous sacrifice, or the serial killer condemned endlessly to replicate an ordained dismemberment.
Horror charts a geography of inexperience, a map requiring almost no knowledge of the outside world. (Roger Corman remarked of his Edgar Allan Poe cycle, “There are no eyes in the unconscious and so I thought the films should be all interiors or, if exteriors were necessary, they should be set at night. I told my cast and crew: I never wanted to see ‘reality’ in any of these scenes.”)2 A child could make such a map, and, at their most characteristic, horror movies capture with rare precision the irrational, ritualistic, repetitive modes of childish thought. The movie can ignore psychological motivation and physical causality because it addresses a level of mind as yet unaware of them, the level where magical thinking continues to flourish. The horror film, in its refusal to impart any information whatsoever about the real world, takes on an unexpectedly consolatory quality. The mind surrenders to the fluidity of a hermetic kingdom where everything is possible.
The antithesis of that cycle of repetition would be the even more awful prospect of a movie in which nothing ever recurred, and no character once seen was ever seen again: a universe of loose ends, so alive with information that you could never find a home in it. It would lack that core of stability which the horror movie portrays in exaggerated form as family vault or haunted house, the place beyond change, from which no one ever departs or is separated.
Here film (the ghostliest medium) is finally like a tomb, the graveyard of superannuated motivations, the place where the psychological thriller loses its psychology, and where stories go to rot. Except that the obligatory ceremony serves to demonstrate at the same time that no story dies, that the most threadbare ancient plot—precisely the most scrawny and absurd excuse for a reasonable explanation—comes back again and again. Here cinema comes closest to fulfilling its function of bringing the dead back to life.
Or back to some kind of life: a life which accommodates itself with unnerving ease to substitutes, stand-ins, borrowed dime store masks. Money or production quality or sincerity or originality matter only in inessential ways; as long as the requisite actions and gestures are respected, the most impoverished mounting suffices. Indeed, a certain grainy cheapness often adds to the harrowing overtones of the events depicted. From the best (Carl Dreyer) to the worst (She-Demons or The Curse of the Aztec Mummy), the distance is not all that far. Here—through the window, beyond the door, beyond the cellar—is where the cinema is no longer a means but an end. The images are so autonomous they direct themselves.
Correctly performed, the ritual deed preserves the world. The circle is unbroken, just like that circle in whose midst the demon appears when summoned. The dead are resurrected—but only, as it turns out, to prove that they had been dead to begin with. The spectator—like the vampire-slayer Dr. Van Helsing, like the girl who leaps from a second-story window to escape at the last moment from the Texas chainsaw massacre—turns out to be the lone survivor, acknowledging, more with regret than with gratitude, that it is, after all, only a movie.
The films listed below, all available on video, are neither the scariest nor the most typical of horror movies. They are notable largely for their aberrance: for injecting elements of style, thematic originality, or structural peculiarity into a genre which does not require them. The dread that horror movies are designed to arouse is often elicited precisely by the least distinguished or distinguishable products; the spectator may watch a dozen horror movies before stumbling upon the one that impinges on his own half-unsuspected anxieties.
There is an embarrassment of research materials, of which I have found the most useful to be Phil Hardy’s The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies (Aurum Press, 1986), Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (Ballantine, 1983), Tim Lucas’s The Video Watchdog Book (Video Watchdog, 1992), and Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies (Harmony Books, 1988). Walter Kendrick’s The Thrill of Fear (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991) and David J. Skal’s The Monster Show (Norton, 1993) provide detailed and entertaining accounts of horror’s cultural roots and branches.
1) Nosferatu (directed by F. W. Murnau, 1922). Horror starts with a point of contact, the crossing of a line—or a bridge, like the one that Jonathan Harker passes over in this adaptation of Dracula by F. W. Murnau, eliciting one of the most effective intertitles of the silent era: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.” The reign of evil is the reign of symmetrical shadows—Max Schreck’s mole-like vampire draws his visual power from the archway under which we first see him—and Nina Harker can save the world by completing the symmetry, killing the vampire by allowing herself to die. The shadow creature is speared by morning light entering the bedroom where she has detained him, and in the moment of death he becomes, literally, a transparency.
2) Dracula (directed by George Melford, 1931). The celebrity of Tod Browning’s Dracula, with Bela Lugosi making his debut in the role that was to consume him, does not make the film itself any less wooden and ploddingly directed; fortunately a livelier alternative is now available in this Spanish-language version, shot on the night shift with the same sets and costumes, but a different cast, director, and cinematographer. The cast—including Carlos Villarias as Dracula and Lupita Tovar as his prime target—bring altogether more conviction and fervor to their roles. As the count prepares to vampirize the sleeping Lucia he draws his cape over, as if drawing a curtain over the scene—or like an insect pulling his prey into his web, to be devoured at leisure and out of sight.
3) Vampyr (Carl Dreyer, 1932). Vampyr suggests what the world might look like from the vampire’s point of view: a string of images so attractive that a spectator could easily want to die inside them. Vampyr’s elements—skulls, staircases, an ancient leather-bound treatise, a mill wheel turning around, the faces of blind people, the voice of an unseen child—allow barely enough story line (just as there is only barely enough sunlight) to rescue the film from its phantoms. What breaks the spell is an indelibly scary moment owing nothing to makeup or special effects: the unanticipated spasmodic grimace of the vampirized girl, a momentary involuntary twisting of neck and baring of teeth that registers as the demon mask of eternal unfulfilled hunger.
4) Freaks (directed by Tod Browning, 1932). Freaks goes beyond makeup and special effects to embody horror in actual deformity, and then reverses things by presenting its cast of sideshow attractions—the snake man, the Siamese twins, the radiant pinheads—as custodians of an other-worldly charm, dancing in pagan innocence within a moonlit glade, divine messengers threatened by the ordinary blind sordidness of the normals. A blonde beauty makes love to a midget in order to steal his money: the offended freaks, in a scene that takes on the undertones of a worldwide rising of the oppressed, creep out from under wagons and tarpaulins, to the accompaniment of Expressionist shadows and a raging thunderstorm, converging to wreak revenge by grotesquely mutilating their betrayer so that she too becomes a freak.
5) The Black Cat (directed by Edgar Ulmer, 1934). The unburied dead of World War I haunt the fringes of a demonic chess game between decadent Satan-worshiper Boris Karloff and war-ravaged madman Bela Lugosi, to the bewilderment of the aggressively normal American newlyweds held hostage in Karloff’s elaborately decorated Central European castle. In the film’s most celebrated exchange, the American husband opines, “It’s all a lot of superstitious baloney,” to which Lugosi replies: “Superstitious, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.” The Rocky Horror Picture Show would later borrow the Americans and the trappings for its exercise in mass-market camp, but the director Edgar Ulmer (Bluebeard, Detour) and art director Charles D. Hall ensure that The Black Cat’s perverse pleasures are of a subtler order. The five-year heyday of Thirties horror engendered many wonderful (and wonderfully concise) movies—Island of Lost Souls, The Mummy, White Zombie, The Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London, Dracula’s Daughter—but none more gratifying to the eye than The Black Cat.
6) I Walked with a Zombie (directed by Jacques Tourneur, 1943). Val Lewton, the inventive and culturally high-minded producer of Cat People and Isle of the Dead, reconstructs Jane Eyre amid a pastiche of Caribbean ethnography, fusing voodoo, an ominous calypso song, and the eroded figurehead of a slave ship. Brontë’s plot is eroded as well, reduced to skeletal remnants of melodrama, as if to suggest an analogous eating away at the heart of plantation culture. Jacques Tourneur’s languorous staging turns the movie into an extended trance lightly inflected by increasingly implausible plot turns: a mute, impossibly tall zombie stands guard at a crossroads, and a doomed lover carries the body of his bewitched beloved (Brontë’s madwoman in the attic, here a victim of voodoo) into the ocean.
7) Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957). A late echo of the Val Lewton cycle, and Jacques Tourneur’s best film, partly owing to a classically constructed screenplay by Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes), which is based on M. R. James’s story “Casting the Runes.” A product of a decade when horror largely restricted itself to space aliens and radioactive mutations, Curse of the Demon situates itself by contrast in a humdrum, quintessentially English world under siege from invisible but omnipresent demonic forces. Niall MacGinnis’s portrayal of the diabolist Karswell superbly suggests Druidic malevolence lurking beneath the manners of an old-school country squire.
8) Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958). England’s Hammer Films revived the Thirties horror icons—Frankenstein and his monster, Dracula, the mummy, the werewolf, the phantom of the opera, the hound of the Baskervilles—in a series of films (the best of them directed by Terence Fisher) characterized by a sort of decorous violence, in which gaudy bloodletting punctuated an otherwise stately narrative rhythm. In Horror of Dracula Fisher’s old-fashioned directorial style imparts surprising solemnity to the candy-box colors and nineteenth-century tableaux, and he takes the battle of good against evil with unexpected seriousness, even if the panache and sensuality of the forces of evil tend continually to undermine the high moral tone. Christopher Lee’s almost wordless performance as Count Dracula superbly mimes the vampire as sexual predator, invading a succession of over-decorated drawing rooms.
9) Black Sunday (directed by Mario Bava, 1961). After the English came the Italians, with a more lurid and emotionally unrestrained approach to Gothic terror. Mario Bava was the master of decorative horror, with a funeral director’s flair for strategic placement and floral embellishment, but his elegiac tone was punctuated by graphic violence; he has the dubious credit of having virtually invented the splatter cycle exemplified by Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth. Released abroad in dubbed and mangled form, his best films—including Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Kill, Baby, Kill! (1964), Danger: Diabolik (1968), A Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969), and Bay of Blood (1971)—are a curious mix of morbid lyricism, bizarre humor, bravura grand guignol effects, and sheer delight in pattern-making. Black Sunday (adapted from Nikolai Gogol’s vampire story “The Vij”) recreates a nineteenth century of the mind, as mesmerizing as it is stridently stylized. The film also provides a showcase for the peculiar talents of Barbara Steele, an underground icon whose unforgettably odd face made fright makeup superfluous.
10) The Haunted Palace (directed by Roger Corman, 1963). Corman’s Poe cycle was to some extent about the contrast between Vincent Price’s mannered delivery—a faint echo of the grand theatrical tradition of Edwin Booth and John Barrymore—and the Gidget-Goes-Hawaiian inflections of the supporting players. Everything about Price’s acting was pitched to a level of full-blooded melodrama unattainable by the other performers, and in his isolation, as a grotesque remnant of the past, he assumed a nearly tragic dignity. Notwithstanding the deliberate campiness of Corman’s approach, his Poe films have proved sturdier than most would have predicted; amid all the swirling fog and tumbling rafters, they stir up real discomfort.
11) The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967). The American distributor retitled Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires in an effort to market it as an uproarious comedy, and then wondered why no one was laughing. In fact the film belongs to a genre of the director’s invention, the dream-horror-farce, and with its sepulchral music track and moody explorations of the vampire’s castle it strikes anything but a lighthearted mood. Jack MacGowran’s performance as the invincibly incompetent vampire-hunter Professor Ambrosius—who will end up unknowingly infecting the whole world with vampirism—is one of the finest instances of physical comedy since the end of the silent era.
12) The Conqueror Worm (directed by Michael Reeves, 1968). Reevess—a talented English director who died at twenty-three—broke a cardinal rule of traditional horror by making his horrors painfully authentic. The problem here is not witches but witch-burners, and Reeves’s strategy is to remove all hint of the supernatural from an intolerably material world inhabited exclusively by hunters and prey. Armed with absolute and arbitrary authority, a pair of free-lance inquisitors descend devastatingly on a seventeenth-century English village looking for witches and heretics; Vincent Price (as Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder-General who gave the film its original title) eschews campiness to give a frighteningly subdued portrait of the fundamentalist as psychopath.
13) Daughters of Darkness (directed by Harry Kümel, 1971). Lesbian vampires made frequent incursions in the early 1970’s—in movies ranging from hardcore pornographic to dreamily aesthetic—as the Gothic horror movie took to flaunting its psychosexual subtexts. Daughters of Darkness leans flamboyantly toward the artistic end of the spectrum, with Delphine Seyrig sporting Marienbad-like costumes and the Belgian director conjuring up images of luxurious decadence replete with feathers, mirrors, and long, winding hotel corridors. At the film’s core, however, is a deeply unpleasant evocation of a war of nerves between Seyrig’s vampire and the bourgeois newlyweds into whose honeymoon she insinuates herself. Jaded age preys cunningly on narcissistic youth, and seductiveness and cruelty become indistinguishable as Seyrig forces the innocents to become aware of their own capacity for monstrous behavior. If Fassbinder had made a vampire movie it might have looked something like this.
14) Ganja and Hess (directed by Bill Gunn, 1973). Ganja and Hess, possibly the most self-consciously artistic horror movie since Vampyr, was drastically recut and reissued under the title Blood Couple, the only form in which it is widely available at present. Commissioned to make a black exploitation movie, Gunn instead produced an anguished, purposely disjointed parable of addiction. A sacrificial knife salvaged from the archaic Myrthian civilization retains the power to infect the unwary with a vampirism that evolved from rituals of community: “It is said that in time the entire population of Myrtha had become addicted to human blood.” The mood is not so much horrific as dreamlike and melancholy, with its tragic lovers and its free-floating flashbacks of an archaic Africa.
15) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (directed by Tobe Hooper, 1974). A journey into the House of Decay that turned the genre away from vampires and the nineteenth century toward more plausible monstrosities, the awful things that lie in wait just off any highway. The movie’s clan of feral rednecks resembles a collection of folksy half-wits from a John Ford movie—Hank Worden as Ole Mose Harper, say, yearning for “just a rockin’ chair by the fire”—ripped up on bad acid and getting nastier by the moment. Beyond its admirable concision and formal elegance, the film is distinguished from its numerous and increasingly brutal progeny by Hooper’s refusal to characterize any of the participants beyond their primary roles as either Murderers or Victims, and by the broad humor which provides the family of cannibals with one “straight” member who clucks disapprovingly at his siblings’ blood lust and comments: “I just don’t take no pleasure in killin’. It’s just something you gotta do. It don’t mean you gotta like it.”
16) Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977). Alice in Wonderland, in the person of radiantly ingenuous Jessica Harper, meets a witches’ coven (presided over by Joan Bennett and a terrifyingly strict Alida Valli) masquerading as a ballet school: a cruel fairy tale with something like a happy ending. The explosively saturated tones of old Technicolor film stock make this look like an M-G-M musical gone haywire, and the lyrical non sequiturs of the narrative fully justify Argento’s explanation of his working methods: “I work in a surrealistic way, like being in a trance. Sometimes I wake up and begin writing when I’m still almost asleep…. It’s like automatic writing…. Like a schizophrenic. As though I have a second soul.”3 The last reel, as Jessica Harper overcomes her timidity long enough to wade through a Walpurgisnacht of hallucinatory horrors and plunge a crystal spike through the heart of an invisible 400-year-old witch, represents the most satisfying display of demonic fireworks and climactic exorcism ever choreographed.
17) The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979). David Cronenberg’s movies virtually close the book on horror movies as hitherto defined. If supernatural underpinnings make horror an essentially comic form—in the sense that no real harm can ultimately befall anyone—Cronenberg by doing away with the supernatural opens up the form to tragedy. He starts with pulpish premises—here, a form of radical therapy out of R.D. Laing and The Primal Scream causes the heroine (Samantha Eggar) literally to give birth to her own murderous impulses in the form of homicidal dwarfs armed with mallets. But he turns this into a drama of austere oppressiveness worthy of Eugene O’Neill if not Racine. The characteristic winter light of Cronenberg’s movies sets off the modernist civic architecture and bourgeois interiors of Toronto and environs with a medical detachment that only makes the biological catastrophes that occur there more intolerable. He has the best eye for geometric, paranoid framings since Fritz Lang, and a distinctively quirky ear for dialogue: “Dr. Raglan knows I’m addicted to him and he doesn’t care!”
18) Fear No Evil (directed by Frank Laloggia, 1981). The modern priest confined to a mental hospital is really the Archangel Raphael, and the friendless straight-A high school student is really Lucifer come back to provoke Armageddon—although it is not altogether clear why the Devil would choose to make his last stand at a small parochial school’s Easter pageant. The final explosion of diabolical violence and equally violent celestial counterattack (the archangels here wield killer crucifixes) is not a model of clarity, but then clarity is hardly to be expected from a film that incorporates motifs from Carrie, The Omen, and Night of the Living Dead, music by the Ramones, Talking Heads, and the Sex Pistols, and religious imagery reminiscent of The Song of Bernadette or The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. This low-budget independent feature (the director was twenty-three) resembles a B-movie adaptation of a Mexican tin painting of the dying soul caught between salvation and perdition; what most disturbs is not its horror-movie trappings but its underlying tone of fundamentalist sincerity.
19) Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988). Cronenberg’s best film is not really a horror movie, but is too horrifying to have been presented as anything else. The fantastic exists here only on the level of technology: a doubled Jeremy Irons (as twin gynecologists who have trouble keeping track of where their personalities stop) is enabled by eerily undetectable motion-control camera work to enact a folie à deux carried to intolerable extremes. Of all Cronenberg’s remorseless images—from the retractable blood-sucking penis-like appendage that forms under Marilyn Chambers’s armpit in Rabid to the incomparable fauna of Naked Lunch with its devouring centipedes, insect typewriters, and fluid-dispensing Mugwumps—none are quite so repulsive as the “surgical instruments for operating on mutant women” custom-built for one of the mutually inextricable self-destructing brothers. Yet Cronenberg is quite right to assert that the film’s final effect is one of overwhelming sadness. He is only taking horror movies where they have wanted to go all along—here perfecting techniques of doubling first sketched in Henrik Galeen’s prototypical doppelgänger movie The Student of Prague (1913)—but his unblinking stare forgoes the protective mediation of expressionist shadows. The horror here is that the lights never go out.
April 22, 1993
Whether or not commercially distributed “snuff” movies actually exist, the possibility of such movies is implicit in the stock B-movie motif of the mad artist killing his models, as in A Bucket of Blood, Color Me Blood Red, or Decoy for Terror. (It might be noted that although the on-screen disemboweling in the 1976 Snuff was fraudulent—and the enraged protest surrounding the film was in part engineered by the distributors themselves—a fair number of subsequent European productions, such as Cannibal Holocaust and The Emerald Jungle, have not hesitated to include the slaughter of animals among their “special effects.”) ↩
The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). The quotation is from Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime (Random House, 1990). ↩
In Maitland McDonagh, Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (Sun Tavern Fields, 1991). ↩