As long as I can remember, I’ve loved horror movies, delighted in stories about monsters getting loose in the dark, scaring complacent squares to death. Scared me, too, but deep down I confess I’ve always been primally tickled when vampires, blobs, giant bugs, werewolves, and aliens broke all the rules. What liberating joy when some long-faced mayor/military officer/scientist/minister, confronted by nightmare, had to eat his platitudes!
Movies that come oozing up out of the darkness behind the brain seriously freak most people out. So how come we love hair-raisers? Maybe it’s connected with going about as far as you can go into really bad places (we’re not talking dreck flicks here, but real genre classics) … and coming back a little less sane, never again quite as existentially secure, but still alive and kicking. It’s a nightmare trip, the darkside equivalent of a vision quest. Vicariously surviving a descent into hell confirms your power over death. The best horror movies teach us that we do not have to go gentle into that dark night.
So this Halloween, give yourselves up to nightmare and the gruesome company of a slew of Witches, Werewolves, Vampires, Zombies, Things, and Ghosts.
The Witching Hour
For witches, warlocks and wizards, the boundaries between good and evil, the living and the dead, white and black magic have ceased to exist. They can conjure bright, utopian dreams or magick us into the very heart of darkness. Powered by unholy sorcery and sometimes inhuman beauty, they flit through our imaginations like eldritch superstars from our pagan past.
The Black Cat (1934)
Mad genius Hjalmar Poelzig’s erected a Frank Lloyd Wright–style house, graced with startlingly modern curves and angles, on a crag where a fort once stood. Decades ago, General Poelzig (Boris Karloff) betrayed that fort to the enemy, and now a survivor, suave Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), whose wife Poelzig coveted, has returned for vengeance. Karloff—his bristling brush-cut rising in a stark V from his gloriously high forehead, a wolfish smile occasionally breaking his skull-like impassivity, his flesh corpse white—looks like a dry run for The Joker, or a dead man walking. Pounding out mad organ music, hosting satanic rites, playing chess with Lugosi for the lives of two American honeymooners who’ve stumbled into this Gothic revenge tale—black-clad, sibilant-voiced Karloff dominates Cat‘s nightmare ballet.
The Sorcerers (1967)
Not long before his death, Karloff is a magnificent, hollow-eyed ruin as an old scientist who cons a bored playboy into acting as guinea pig for a new invention involving hypnosis: “Intoxication with no hangover, ecstasy with no conscience.” Professor Monserrat and his mummy-like wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) find that they not only control their subject but also vicariously experience whatever he’s up to. (High shot: the oldsters face each other across a round table, jacked into virtual reality, their arthritic hands clawing orgasmically at the faded tablecloth.) Monserrat sees his machine as a boon to old people, who will enjoy the pleasures of youth through surrogates. Estelle’s got other ideas: she wants “to use our boy” for her own fun and gain: “We all want to do things deep inside ourselves. Things we can’t allow ourselves to do. But now we have the means … without the fear of the consequences!”