FRIDAY, THE SPOOKS ghouls, zombies, voodoo dolls, vampires, lycanthropes and other assorted fiends form a daylong parade of blood and gore that will give you nightmares through the weekend. (And that’s just for people who don’t leave the house!) The timeless 1942 classic Cat People gets things rolling on TCM at 7:30 a.m. The first of producer Val Lewton’s critically acclaimed, economically filmed horror movies, it made a star of French cream puff Simone Simon as a shy girl possessed by a superstition that turns her into a panther. The scene in the deserted swimming pool in the New Orleans French Quarter still gives me the heebie-jeebies. This is followed by Tod Browning’s Freaks, starring actual circus freaks, all involved in a bizarre tale of murder and vengeance in a traveling sideshow. In 1932, nothing like this movie had ever been seen before, and nothing like it has been seen since. Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer’s husband and the power behind the MGM throne, commissioned it hoping to break the records set by Dracula at rival Universal Studios, and ordered the casting department to beat the bushes for authenticity. From circus midways, touring carnivals and the vaudeville circuit came dwarfs; pinheads; a “half-boy”; an armless and legless wonder who could shave and roll his own cigarettes; an Austrian hermaphrodite; a 65-pound “human skeleton”; a bearded lady; and Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Siamese twins who, decades later, became the subjects of the shocking but brilliant and highly acclaimed Broadway musical Freaks. When the movie was finally completed and unveiled to preview audiences, it caused such an outrage that Thalberg cut 30 minutes of the most controversial scenes in the movie, reducing the running time to a mere 65 minutes. The press still pounced, calling Freaks a prime example of Hollywood’s declining moral standards. Now it’s acknowledged by critics, scholars, historians and film buffs as one of the most compelling and unusual films of all time, but the missing footage has never been found and Freaks is still rarely shown anywhere. You can see at least what some of the fuss was about at 9:30 Halloween morning, on TCM. If you’re still not freaked out after Freaks, the masters take over, with three Bela Lugosi classics—Mark of the Vampire, Devil Bat and White Zombie—and three by my boy Boris—The Body Snatcher, Bedlam and The Ghoul. Bedlam is especially disturbing, with Karloff alarmingly convincing as the demented master of a Gothic 18th-century insane asylum. And do try to catch The Black Room, a two-for-one treat with Karloff as twin brothers—one kindly, the other an evil and murderous lecher—replete with a sinister castle equipped with a deep pit into which the bad brother’s enemies, competitors and discarded mistresses are dropped to their doom. The horror continues until the witching hour.
These are among the last attempts to make films of distinction in a formulaic genre destined to cheapen with time and the weather. But the Film Society of Lincoln Center plans to extend the screams beyond Halloween. Next month, they are hosting a program of 11 films called “Problem Child,” about the macabre strains of dark behavior in children as demons, victims, criminals, abusers and objects of the supernatural. As perpetrators of pain and misery, problem children can cause problems for others better than their elders can. These are kids 5 to 18 whose kindergarten must have been an abattoir. In Mervyn Leroy’s flawed but fascinating screen version of Maxwell Anderson’s Broadway smash The Bad Seed, a green-lawned-and-white-columned house in perfect all-American suburbia is invaded by a pigtailed sociopath named Rhoda Penmark for whom murder is as much fun as a game of jacks. The notion that homicidal maniacs are born that way is unconvincing, but see it for the great ensemble acting by a splendid cast that includes Nancy Kelly, Eileen Heckart, Evelyn Varden and Patty McCormack, as the deceptively darling Rhoda. In William Wyler’s polished adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s famous play The Children’s Hour, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine are schoolteachers whose lives are ruined by a psychotic child who spreads the rumor that they are lesbians. Compulsion is a masterful dossier on the Leopold and Loeb murder case. The Innocents, based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw with a nail-biting screenplay by Truman Capote, is the best ghost story since The Uninvited. As child horror goes, so goes Linda Blair, whirling her head like a dervish while spitting pea soup in The Exorcist. With a range from Mommie Dearest to Village of the Damned, this is a program worth further investigation at Thanksgiving, but I can safely say in advance the lure is an archival print of the rarely shown 1944 domestic thriller Tomorrow the World! It stars 14-year-old Skip Homeier as a German orphan adopted by a liberal university professor (Fredric March) who brings his dangerous, hidden Nazism to the American home front. It was a bombshell in 1944, and I can’t wait to see if it holds up as chillingly today as its subversive, political Third Reich agitprop still does.
Horror films are hard to sell to today’s audiences, jaded by so many real-life atrocities. When you can’t give away tickets to Madame Tussaud’s, who wants to see The Mystery of the Wax Museum? (The “mystery” is how it opened in the first place.) Money is tight, audiences have changed, technology has driven artistry into hibernation. Moviegoers want slice-and-dice slaughters with women raped and ravaged by psychos wielding chainsaws and blood pouring from every orifice, including a few that haven’t been named yet. Genuine horror films with lasting value are harder to find, but once in a jack-o’-lantern moon comes a newfangled classic, ready-made for posterity: Hitchcock’s Psycho, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, David Fincher’s Seven are a few that will pass the test of time. I think there could be more. With respectable directors to guide them and intelligent writers to script them, A-list actors would surely follow. Of course, there is no guarantee. If we make new horror films, we have to find new ways to defend them. I remember when Susan Sarandon made The Hunger, Tony Scott’s kinky and erotic vampire movie with a lesbian twist, the only thing the press harped on was the sex. “Why did you do a nude love scene with Catherine Deneuve?” screeched one interviewer. Incredulous, Ms. Sarandon stared into the eyes of her inquisitor and without missing a beat, said, “Wouldn’t you?”