Firstly: I cannot believe October has nearly reached its end. We’ve been so busy with family events and concerns that we seem to have barely noticed fall’s approach—then, returning home from a wedding in Michigan Sunday, the season asserted itself quite undeniably! The colours here in Ohio are really just beginning to turn; a few trees here and there are aflame with orange and gold, but many remain as green as they were in August and September.
Secondly, this is of course the final weekend before Halloween, an event with which I have a weird relationship. My parents refused to let my sister and I trick-or-treat because of the origins of the holiday, and they wouldn’t even pass out candy themselves. They have lightened up a great deal since I grew up and moved out, happily (really, I hardly needed all of that old-age and sickness-inducing sugar…), and of course I was very excited to be able to pass out candy to kids when I moved into my first home—they’re all so flat-out cute in their costumes (up to a certain age, of course, it must be said). I don’t dress up, tempting as it is—frankly, since I dress 40s or 50s daily, people seem to think I’m in costume no matter the time of year—but have more than enough fun seeing all of the little crumb-crunchers doing their best to surreptitiously wiggle out of their coats so as to better display their costumes.
At any rate, TCM is of course overflowing with creepy films in the final run-up to the big night for all the kiddies, and I say “let’s go with it” and have a good time. There’s not much gore, as that’s not at all my cup of tea, but plenty of suspense and even a little camp. Some of the movies are so familiar a description is hardly necessary. In fact, there’s only one non-creepy film in the picks this week, the drama Mr. Skeffington with Bette Davis and Claude Rains on Sunday night. The film is so dear to me it had to be included—it’s one of Bette’s best performances, yes, but the story is tremendously powerful.
But other than that, it’s all suspense and creepy-crawly and very appropriate for Halloween, no matter how much the trees have turned or not in your neck of the woods. Let’s take a look, with some creepy photos to accompany the peek.
House of Wax 1953
Vincent Price’s first horror film, House of Wax also made Price a horror flick star in one go. This is…bizarre, but good. After a waxworks burns, the sculptor, who was disfigured by the fire, hurriedly rebuilds his museum…using the recently deceased as his sculptures. The recently killed. Ahem.
I know, I know, it sounds really gory, and it is creepy, but…well. It’s great fun to watch just the same. Originally a 3-D film (one of the first), TCM will screen it “flat”. Even so—just watch it. Not only is Price good, he had to sit through three hours of makeup a day for the film, a process he referred to as “agony, absolute agony”; a young Charles Bronson shows up, too, billed as “Charles Buchinsky”.
House of Usher 1960
Roger Corman takes on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s tales in a truly good horror film starring, of course, Vincent Price.
The House on Haunted Hill 1959
If Vincent Price offered you ten grand to spend the night in his haunted mansion where a few folks had already died in rather grisly fashion, would you accept? Yes or no, that’s the premise of this entertaining (and, in my opinion, sometimes unintentionally funny) horror film. Dripping blood, moving walls, acid vats—I don’t think I’d be quite so greedy for dough, but seven people do take Price up on his offer, which includes the pretense of a party for Price’s wife Annabelle, and we get to watch the show. Put on your best “shaking head while screaming” face and enjoy.
The Raven 1963
Though inspired by Poe, this film is really a spoof on the horror genre in which the thought-dead wife of one sorcerer turns up in the home of her husband’s hated rival. Though not one I’ve seen, it does sound like fun. The cast alone—Price alongside Boris Karloff & Peter Lorre, as well as a young Jack Nicholson—is going to attract a lot of folks, and we’re promised the amusing use (misuse?) of Latin as well. What’s to lose?
Bride of Frankenstein 1935
Elsa Lanchester is “the Bride” in this fabulous-in-every-way classic. (She also plays Mary Shelley in the prologue!) Presumably, Drew Barrymore will be joining Robert Osborne in the Essentials introduction of Bride of Frankenstein; am I the only one semi-hoping she’ll show up with The Bride’s hair? Karloff and Colin Clive also star, and it’s tonight’s Essential for a reason!
The Mummy 1932
The original, starring none other than Karloff himself as the resurrected mummy chasing after the woman (Zita Johann) he thinks is his reincarnated lover. Interestingly, the film was inspired by the mysterious deaths of those who’d discovered the tomb of King Tut in 1922—the mere idea of Egyptian tomb curses became extraordinarily popular at the time and remained so through the early 1930s. Somewhat Dracula-esque—the woman in question is protected by her own sweetheart as well as an older Egyptologist (The Mummy‘s version of Stoker’s indomitable Van Helsing)—was so successful it spawned several sequels during the 1940s. It’s very creepy—more so than the still entertaining but glossier recent remake with Brendan Fraser and that beautiful British woman whose name I can’t be troubled to look up right now—and just as enjoyable as its successors. And since we’re talking about long hours in the makeup chair for stars already, Karloff spent eight hours in the chair prior to shooting having his undead face put on. Eight hours. Respect, viewers.
Cat People 1942
Ever-so-slightly campy and B-movie, this one never fails to surprise me with its actual impact and tension. Newly married Simone Simon fears that any passion, love or fury, will activate a curse on her that will turn her into a ferocious, murderous cat—and as you can probably imagine, her husband (Kent Smith) isn’t too happy with his bride doing whatever she can to avoid consummating their marriage (I am not kidding, this is the plot), even though doing so might mean she kills him (no one has ever said men thought straight in regards to sex). “Kiss me and I’ll claw you to death!”
There really are some shocking and extremely unnerving scenes in this film, including the famous swimming pool scene and a verrrrrry long walk at night. There’s no gore at all—in fact, most of the horror takes place in our mind, coaxed along via suggestion by director Val Lewton, who told the LA Times
We tossed away the horror formula right from the beginning. No grisly stuff for us. No masklike faces hardly human, with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end. No creaking physical manifestations. No horror piled on horror. You can’t keep up horror that’s long sustained. It becomes something to laugh at. But take a sweet love story, or a story of sexual antagonisms, about people like the rest of us, not freaks, and cut in your horror here and there by suggestion, and you’ve got something.
It works, and this is a fun and oddly engrossing film to watch. Jane Randolph, Tom Conway, and Elizabeth Russell also star in Cat People—incidentally, the film that saved RKO after the huge costs of making Citizen Kane, breaking box-office records and grossing $4 million dollars the studio desperately needed. Cat People would eventually be placed on the National Film Registry—not bad for a slightly campy flick RKO was not exactly thrilled with before the dough came rolling in.
White Zombie 1932
This time it’s Lugosi sending thrills up our spines as plantation owner and zombie master (a career path I was never offered, how about you?) Murder Legendre. Though he has an army of zombies at his command, when a beautiful bride-to-be turns up at a neighbor’s, he decides he must have her (well, women have many advantages over zombies…) and resorts to evil methods to take her away from her fiancé. Thanks to the film’s low budget, it has a very dreamlike look that ends up serving the story quite well indeed.
Mr. Skeffington 1945
Our sole non-suspenser this week, Mr. Skeffington is a film I fell in love with upon first viewing. Yes, it tugs at your heartstrings a bit, but by the time it does you’re in so deep you are happy to go along with it. Bette Davis stars as a much sought-after young beauty who marries a stockbroker (Claude Rains) for his money and to save her brother’s skin, a woman who spurns her husband’s deep love for her to the point that both of them are very nearly destroyed. We follow the Big Apple couple from 1914 on through ’45, and…well, I hate to ruin anything. It is just a beautiful film, one where we simultaneously find ourselves rooting for and exasperated with the leading lady, who turns in a truly superb performance.
One thing I love about the film is that Davis—never considered a conventional beauty—really makes you believe she’s the most stunning woman to walk the face of the earth. Even my father, who can’t stand Bette, says you believe it watching Skeffington, and it’s true. Like few others, this proves her exceptional talent, particularly when we consider that Davis’ husband unexpectedly died a week before filming; Bette was back at work after only a week of mourning, and still turns in a magnificent performance, one for which she truly earned the Best Actress Oscar nomination.
I’ve not seen this Vincente Minnelli suspense film before, but it sounds intriguing and has a very good cast—Katharine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, and Robert Taylor, all cast against type—Hepburn as a meek, scaredy-cat wife; Taylor as a sinister, cruel husband; Mitchum as a “nice guy”. Also, seeing Minnelli direct a straight film like this instead of a musical is always interesting.