Where have all the monsters gone? As a kid, I was gung-ho for Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney, not to mention Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and the rest of the more sophisticated Warner Brothers stock company turning out classy thrillers like The Beast With Five Fingers. Eventually, the legitimate monsters of my youthful mania turned into gruesome parodies in the air-conditioned, garishly colored trash that came out of England’s Hammer Films and the hysterical comic-book parodies from cheapjack American-International. I mean, let’s face it: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Mummy were master creations fashioned by the special-effects wizards at Universal, and are still often copied but never duplicated. I was ecstatic when, as a lifetime fan, I bought an apartment right next door to Boris Karloff, but he died the day before I moved in. “He’ll come back,” promised the doorman darkly.
And every Halloween, he does. Thanks to television, this is the week when all folks big and small—including rational men who say their prayers at night—avoid full moons and pentagrams, and dare not even mention the word “wolfbane.” In New York, where creeps scarier than anything dreamed up by Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker wander the streets in broad daylight, it may be harder to get the shivers, but not because rental chains, DVD box sets, revival houses and movie channels don’t work overtime to scare the living daylights out of you. (There’s still money in mayhem.) This year, American Movie Classics turned up the chill factor a week ahead of everyone else, with 24/7 programming full of corn like Christine (they think Stephen King is scary!), The Fly (more hilarious than anything else), the ho-hum Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (more predictable than spine-tingling, and how did Robert Englund ever break for lunch or use his cell phone with those Freddy Krueger scissorhands?). Unsurprisingly, AMC is again showering us with most of the endless Halloweens. Indestructible maniac Michael Myers is burned, sawed, shot, disemboweled and otherwise destroyed at the end of each and every installment, but he always comes back for more. John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween with Jamie Lee Curtis and all the clever Psycho references is still worth a scream or two, but my advice is skip all the tired, derivative clones. This is a big waste of time while you wait for the good stuff that comes later. Chucky? I mean, this is New York, where every day is Friday the 13th. Who freaks out about dolls behaving badly? John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981), one of the best contemporary horror films, is not a spoof but a blood-curdling original about a young American bitten by a creature on the Yorkshire moors with tragic results, plus Oscar-winning makeup, special effects and respect for past movie history. AMC is repeating it five times this week on the countdown to the Big Pumpkin.
Save your nerves, Valiums and Zantac 150 antacids. You’ll need them for two of the greatest horrors of all time from the Universal vaults: House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein, both from 1945, where the Count, the Monster, and the Wolf Man all join together at the same time, with Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney in full-tilt career mode. Then brush up on your TiVo instructions, and set those timers, which will be working overtime now that Turner Classic Movies has jump-started the terror a whole day early, on Oct. 30, with The Thing From Another World. It’s on at 4:45 a.m., but it’s worth it. This is the tense, electrifying 1951 Howard Hawks-produced original, about stranded scientists in a remote snowbound Arctic research lab who dig an alien from hell out of the ice, then fight for their lives when it accidentally thaws. It was initially called The Thing, until the pointless, repulsive remake by John Carpenter came along 30 years later with the same title and bright Technicolor hues that robbed it of all suspense. This hair fryer is followed by two thrillers starring the slimy, whimpering Peter Lorre—Mad Love (1935), with lurid direction and gory atmosphere by legendary cameraman Karl Freund, and The Beast With Five Fingers (1945), both about severed hands playing the piano at midnight, driving people to insanity and death. Cringing and always slightly wet, Lorre was a horror highlight. Who could forget him after Bogart bashed him into bloody hamburger in The Maltese Falcon, or his mincing retort: “Look what you’ve done to my shirt!” Ruthless, greedy and usually slimy and moist around the eyes, Lorre was the movies’ first authentic wimp—but capable of great carnage. It’s always a pleasure to welcome him on Halloween.
Haiti never fails to furnish its share of zombie plots, but the best is still Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (Thursday at 9 a.m.). Francis Dee as a naïve nurse lured into the rustling, moonlit cane fields by the undead still gives me goose bumps. Don’t waste the afternoon on a series of stupid Hammer films with Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, made in cookie-cutter style by William Castle and Roger Corman. But at 8 p.m., things pick up with the famous, fashionably dolorous 1945 British classic Dead of Night, a compilation of five ghost stories told by guests in a grim country house. The best episode is the last, with Michael Redgrave delivering a colossally disturbing performance as a schizophrenic ventriloquist whose puppet comes to life and takes command, with paralyzing results. When this grandfather of the horror-compilation genre was released in the U.S., two of the segments were cut to give the film a shorter running time. For this Halloween adventure, TCM has restored the print to its original 102 minutes. It is followed by Torture Garden, another rarely shown British-made anthology from 1967 in which Jack Palance exhibits his own real-life Halloween mask to good effect, in a carnival sideshow exhibit on torture victims that predicts the deaths of its customers.