Friday, October 30, 2009

My Halloween Monster Marathon

I usually spend Halloween curled up in bed in my dark bedroom watching my favorite movie monsters stalking across the silver screen. Despite all the advances in special effects since the dawn of moviemaking, I don't think Hollywood has ever done it better than with the original Universal Studios Movie Monsters, those beloved icons of classic horror films that still fuel our imaginations and are loved by legions of film fans to this day.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON has always been my favourite movie monster. There's just something about "The Gill Man" that touches me; when you look past the gills and green scale-skin, and fearsome, sharp claws, he seems so lonely.

The Creature dwells in a peaceful lagoon untouched by modern civilization until scientists invade his territory, arousing his ire and--when he sees the beautiful brunette they have brought with them--his lust. The subliminally erotic pas de deux underwater scene where the Creature watches the white-bathing-suit-clad object of his obsession swim, and even joins her, swimming below her, without her knowing, is, in my opinion, one of the most memorable scenes ever filmed. It is a film that proves once again that the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, whatever the era, costumes, or whether it be set in a French chateau or an isolated lagoon, is a formula for success.

In the sequel, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, the Gill Man is transported back to civilization and put into a public aquarium/fun park, sort of a 1950s Sea World, where he becomes the main attraction to be gawked at by inquisitive camera-toting tourists. To gauge his intelligence, scientists poke him with an electric cattle prod. Naturally, the Creature objects to such cruel treatment, and when he escapes he runs amok like some sort of (rightfully) outraged aquatic King Kong and tries to carry his new female fancy (a blonde this time) back to the sea with him.

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US is, in my opinion, the weakest, as well as my least favorite, of the three films. When scientists pursue the Gill Man back to his peaceful lagoon habitat he is accidentally burned. To save his life, they perform radical surgery that removes his damaged gills, and makes him more man than fish, and thus a freakish outcast in a world of human beings. Removed from the water, the gracefully swimming Gill Man becomes ponderous, clunky, and awkward, wearing clothes and staring wistfully at the sea, yearning for the underwater home he can never return to. Without his gills, the water that once was his life now means death.

THE MUMMY (and its four sequels of increasingly lower quality) with its special blend of horror and romance, is another favorite, perhaps dating back to my interest in Ancient Egypt which began in early childhood. It's always great fun watching the Tana-leaf-fueled Mummy dragging his dirty linen behind him, lumbering clumsily across the screen in search of the modern reincarnation of his ancient love, and making short shrift of anyone who dares try and stop him. The original film, which starred Boris Karloff as The Mummy was inspired by the continuing fascinating with the discovery of King Tut's treasure-laden tomb and the enduring rumours of a curse that would strike down anyone who disturbed the Pharaoh's rest.

Subsequent films in The Mummy series--THE MUMMY'S HAND, THE MUMMY'S TOMB, THE MUMMY'S GHOST, and THE MUMMY'S CURSE--disintegrated into rather cheesy B-grade horror movies, more laughable perhaps than thrilling, but still good fun.

And there was never a better screen incarnation of the monster created by FRANKENSTEIN than Boris Karloff nor a more famous movie monster makeup than that Jack Pierce, the brilliant head of the Universal Studios Makeup Department, designed for him. Despite his grotesque, lumbering appearance, there is a poignancy about Karloff as Frankenstein's misunderstood, misbegotten creation that touches the heart at the same time as it strikes terror into it. The childlike innocence that causes him to unintentionally kill the little girl who befriends him is heartbreaking, and the scenes with the blind hermit who offers him shelter and friendship are also quite touching.

The sequel BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of the rare examples of a sequel that can actually hold a candle to the original.

Elsa Lanchester's makeup and Nefertiti-inspired hair, with the white streaks up the side reminiscent of lightning, are as instantly recognizable and iconic as the face and form of her intended mate, Frankenstein's monster.

Several sequels followed, including SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, with Basil Rathbone in the title role, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but, as is often the case, quality began to slip, and when Karloff dropped out of the series it was never quite the same; no other actor could give the monster that bittersweet touch of pathos.

Though it plays fast and loose with werewolf lore, freely inventing where it will, THE WOLF MAN, and its sequel FRAKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, is nonetheless a treat even when it isn't Halloween. Larry Talbot, portrayed by the son of "The Man of a Thousand Faces," Lon Chaney Jr., is more to be pitied than scorned as the decent, good guy who is bitten by a werewolf and becomes one himself, for "even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."

And Bela Lugosi found true immortality to be both a blessing and a curse as DRACULA. Despite the liberties taken with the Count's appearance and Bram Stoker's novel, Lugosi's Dracula is in our blood; his suave, dapper interpretation of the fiendish, blood-sucking Hungarian Count is the screen vampire that lingers most in human imagination.

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