Top 10 List of Classic Horror Movie Villains

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When it comes to the horror genre, victims—and even heroes, for that matter—are a dime a dozen. Who can remember everyone Jason has killed throughout the Friday the 13th series or how Michael got his comeuppance in, say, Halloween 4? Sure, everyone knows that Van Helsing has defeated the most famous vampire of all in countless versions of the story, but how many recall who dispatched the monster at the end of House of Frankenstein? Who were the people that Godzilla stomped? Who was it that exterminated the giant ants in Them? Did anyone manage to escape the House of 1000 Corpses? It’s hard to remember!

But the villains—oh those amazing villains!—will live on for all of eternity in horror cinema…

Click here to read Madison Film Guy’s full FROM THE TOMB column–TOP 10 LIST OF CLASSIC HORROR MOVIE VILLAINS–at Horrornews.net!

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Top 5 Horror-Comedies of the Golden Age

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Comedy and horror have been kissing cousins since the early days of cinema. Moments of humor have been the go-to safety valve that horror filmmakers have used consistently to relieve audience tension and to provide a break from the suspense and terror of the moment. Over time, the approach may have changed, but the general idea has remained remarkably consistent from the early days of cinema to today. The dark humor of The Bride of Frankenstein, for instance, eventually evolved into movies like An American Werewolf in London,The Evil Dead 2, and Re-Animator: horror movies first but with a wildly comic spin at the same time. Early full-throated horror satires like The Cat and the Canary and the Abbott and Costello Meet… films eventually became modern classics like Young Frankenstein and What We Do in the Shadows.

It should be no surprise, then, that a separate and distinct subgenre would eventually evolve, fusing the horror film with the movie comedy, and for a brief, glorious period more than sixty years ago, the horror-comedy enjoyed a run of excellence the produced a string of enduring classics…

Click here to read Madison Film Guy’s full FROM THE TOMB column–TOP 5 HORROR-COMEDIES OF THE GOLDEN AGE–at Horrornews.net!

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Karloff vs. Lugosi: Clash of the Horror Titans

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After more than one hundred years of horror cinema, reasonable people still disagree about who is the greatest horror star of all time, but most arguments tend to boil down to Boris Karloff vs. Bela Lugosi. While the versatile and inimitable Karloff may have boasted the more robust and impactful career overall, the dark and mysterious Lugosi—despite a legacy that ultimately degenerated into self-parody and forgettable schlock—may have delivered the single most iconic horror performance of all time…

Click here to read Madison Film Guy’s full March 2017 FROM THE TOMB column–KARLOFF VS. LUGOSI: CLASH OF THE HORROR TITANS–at Horrornews.net!

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31 Films of Halloween – 10/17/15: Werewolf of London

Throughout October, Madison Film Guy will post new mini-reviews/recommendation/musings on contemporary or classic horror films to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Werewolf of London.

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Werewolf of London, 1935

To this day, the 1941 classic The Wolfman remains the definitive werewolf movie.

Six years earlier, the same studio—Universal Studios, the ultimate name in classic horror cinema—put out a werewolf movie that may have been even better than its successor: Werewolf of London.

Whereas The Wolfman is a legendary tale of personal tragedy and soulful anguish, Werewolf of London is more of a mythic morality play. Unlike its successor’s tortured victim, Larry Talbot, Werewolf of London’s werewolf is a scientist—a botanist by trade—who contracts his lycanthropic curse not from racing to the aid of a damsel in distress, but rather from venturing to the forbidden reaches of Tibet to steal nature’s rarest flower. Like a Greek myth, it is his arrogance and ambition—his own hubris—that causes his downfall.

Deep in the mountain of Tibet, Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and wounded by a strange animal. After returning to London, he finds himself turning nightly into a werewolf and terrorizing the city, his one hope for curing his affliction the rare Asian flower. A mysterious stranger named Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) has followed him home, however, and wants the flower for himself to control his own beastly transformations.

Although clearly a werewolf tale, the creature of Werewolf of London is more man than beast. The Wolfman’s monster walks like a man but otherwise is a wild animal, savagely preying upon its victims and racing through the countryside like a mad beast. By contrast, Werewolf of London presents a werewolf that is driven not by animal impulses but by the darkest side of human emotion: jealousy and resentment. The creature resembles and acts more like Mr. Hyde than a traditional werewolf, and that casts the film in an entirely different light than its successor.

Werewolf of London is significantly darker and grittier than The Wolfman and in many ways more sophisticated. Although it uses similar time-lapse photography trickery in several transformation scenes, for example, Dr. Glendon’s first transformation is much more cleverly done: while walking through his laboratory, a series of camera occlusions trigger his step-by-step transformation. While not as “cutting edge” (this was 1935, remember) as the time-lapse trick, it’s much more impactful and shocking. Watch that initial transformation in the first few seconds of this clip (0:00 – 0:11:

The first feature-length werewolf movie ever made, Werewolf of London absolutely stands the test of time, even eighty years later. Thoughtful, interesting, and engaging: if you consider The Wolfman the class of the genre but haven’t given its predecessor a chance, check out Werewolf of London and you just might find that sometimes the first really is the best.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/6/15: House on Haunted Hill

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: House on Haunted Hill.

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House on Haunted Hill, 1959

Let’s call it a Vincent Price double feature.

Yesterday’s film was the 1959 Price guilty pleasure The Bat. Today’s film is the 1959 Price guilty pleasure House on Haunted Hill. Turns out that 1959 was a pretty fun, campy year for Vincent Price.

Directed by master of movie gimmicks William Castle, House on Haunted Hill takes place over the course of a single night in a (maybe, maybe not) haunted mansion. Price’s eccentric millionaire, Frederick Loren, has invited a group of not-so-random strangers to attend a haunted birthday party for his estranged wife. “There’ll be food and drink and ghosts,” Price explains in the film’s prologue, “and perhaps even a few murders.” The catch? Any guest who stays the whole night in the house—and manages to stay alive in the process—gets $10,000. If someone leaves or dies, the remaining guests who make it through the night will split their share.

At the core of House on Haunted Hill is the dysfunctional relationship between Price’s Loren and his wife, Annabelle (played by Carol Ohmart). Both are convinced that the other is a murderer, and ultimately—in their own way—both are proved right. The chemistry between Price and Ohmart is outstanding. You can practically taste the venom each spits at the other in their far too few scenes together. Most of their screen time together is talky exposition, but it never drags and is always wickedly delicious.

For all its camp and clichés, House on Haunted Hill really is a surprisingly effective little horror film. With plenty of creepy atmosphere, a twisty plot, and some genuine scares, Castle’s film succeeds as a pure genre film and ranks among Price’s top performances.

For the record, and in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the 1999 House on Haunted Hill remake gets a bit of a bad rap and is actually an effective horror film in its own right. Forty years later the stakes went up from $10,000 per guest to a cool million per, and the special effects were taken up a few notches, as you might expect. In the lead role, Geoffrey Rush spends much of the film doing his best Vincent Price impersonation, which is actually more fun than it may sound.

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But while the 1999 version is far more violent and bloody than the 1959 version, it also features some creatively unsettling imagery that elevates it above some of its same-generation cinematic peers. The nightmarish visuals—including a terrifically effective ghost surgery featuring a cameo by Jeffrey Combs—are outstanding.

For the purists, though, you simply can’t beat Vincent Price and William Castle, so make House on Haunted Hill 1959 a Halloween season treat.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/5/15: The Bat

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: The Bat.

The Bat, 1959

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To be clear, The Bat is a guilty pleasure. It’s not great filmmaking, and it’s not very scary. But whatever the reason, I have seen The Bat more times than I’d care to admit. And there is little chance that I will make it through October without seeing it again.

With two feet firmly planted in the old dark house tradition, The Bat opens with a narrated introduction by the lead character, Cornelia van Gorder. “This is the Oaks,” her voice intones portentously, “a house in the country which I’ve rented for the summer. As an author I write tales of mystery and murder, but the things that have happened in this house are far more fantastic than any book I’ve ever had published.”

Of course, nothing all that fantastic actually happens, but that’s beside the point.

The Bat is the kind of movie in which a bank president and his doctor go to an isolated cabin in the woods for an entire summer, and nobody finds it odd. It’s the kind of movie in which lots of ordinary people seem perfectly comfortable murdering their friends and neighbors. And it’s the kind of movie in which, well, the lead character’s name would actually be Cornelia van Gorder.

In short, it’s a lot of old-time wicked fun.

Most of that fun comes courtesy of the ongoing game of cat-and-mouse-and-cat played by the three leads: Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead (who later played Endora, the mother-in-law from hell on Bewitched), and Gavin Gordon. Considering that they play a respected doctor, a prestigious writer, and the Chief of Detectives for the local police force, there are an awful lot of sinister motives and paranoid accusations flying around amongst them.

Price, especially, makes the proceedings as delightful as possible. He doesn’t exactly chew the scenery, but his smirking innuendos, questionable experiments, and violent confrontations make The Bat a classic horror lover’s dream. It may not be Price’s best movie, but he gives it all he’s got.

And, perhaps best of all, The Bat is in the public domain, which means that you can pretty much see it anywhere you can get streaming video.

Halloween season should be all about the guilty pleasures, so if you can spare 80 minutes at some point in October, sink your teeth into The Bat and enjoy.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/4/15: Jaws

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Jaws.

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Jaws, 1975

It is hard to believe that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned 40 years old this year. Four decades after its initial release and three sequels later—you would have guessed more than that, right?—Jaws remains one of the most ground-breaking films of any genre of all time.

Ranked number 48 on the American Film Institute’s roster of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, Jaws is not only an outstanding film on the merits, but it also single-handedly created the idea of the summer blockbuster, which had never before existed until Spielberg’s masterpiece came along. For all the amazing things about Jaws, however—the phenomenal performances, the terrific writing, and on and on—what is often lost about this timeless classic is just how good a horror film it really is.

Jaws actually scares you. And it doesn’t just scare you in the moment: it lingers with you, it haunts you, and it plays with your mind whenever you dip your toe into the deep blue sea. It is not hype to say that an entire generation of moviegoers learned to be afraid of the water from Jaws.

The real genius of Jaws was its ability to—really for the first time—come up with something as terrifying as the dark. For as long as long as humans have had the capacity for fear, they have been afraid of the dark. You can’t see in it, so there could be anything there. When you step into it, you are rendered all but helpless. And no matter what is in there, odds are that it would not be nearly as terrifying if you could actually see it. Jaws took everything that we’ve always feared about the dark and applied it to the sea.

The power of that approach was rendered even more potent by the happy accident of the malfunctioning mechanical shark. Spielberg’s difficulties with his malfunctioning monster have been well-documented, and the production’s inability to keep the shark prop functioning properly during the shoot forced Spielberg to adjust his style on the fly. So, rather than seeing the shark in all its glory early and often, Spielberg instead offers us subtle suggestions of the shark’s presence—the simple chords of the brilliant score, a swimmer’s reaction to the shark’s attack, a shadow in the water—and brief glimpses. By making the shark the thing behind the door, by the time we actually see it, we are already terrified of it.

Jaws may have been the first summer blockbuster, but it will always be a Halloween movie to me.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/2/15: Dracula

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: 1931’s Dracula.

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Dracula, 1931

Recommending a fresh take on Bela Lugosi’s original Dracula seems like a solid, safe pick for the 31 Films of Halloween. Universal-ly (pun intended) acknowledged as a true horror classic, Lugosi’s Dracula remains—nearly a century later—the definitive take not only on the Dracula story, but on the vampire genre itself.

But here’s the twist.

If you can find it, I strongly recommend re-watching Dracula (obviously, you MUST have seen it before) with the turn-of-the-century Philip Glass score. It will knock your socks off.

In 1999, Universal Studios Home Entertainment commissioned composer Philip Glass to compose an entirely original score for Dracula, and then distributed the scored version on DVD and VHS. When Universal later released its classics collections in 2004 on DVD, the Glass score was available on an alternative audio track on the original movie. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the Glass score transforms Dracula and makes a truly classic film truly great.

In bringing Bram Stoker’s novel to the screen, Universal produced a gold-standard horror classic largely on the strength of two things: Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance and director Tod Browning’s success in establishing a dark, foreboding, dream-like atmosphere. The former has become so seared in the cinematic psyche that Lugosi and the role will forever be inseparable. The latter is often overlooked, but combined with Lugosi’s performance, Browning’s construction of images and mood and moments—Dracula’s welcome, the appearance of the vampire brides, and so on—was simply masterful.

Where Browning stumbled, however, was in the pacing and stagey-ness of the film. While the languid pace supports the dreamy ambiance, there are moments when the film slows to a virtual crawl. Combined with the pervasive quiet—Dracula is a “talkie” but might as well have been a silent film in its disregard for dialogue and sound throughout much of its 85 minutes—the pacing occasionally drains the energy right out of the story.

The Glass score, however, brings the entire film to life, energizing the slowest scenes and adding extra zing to the film’s highest points. In the wonderful scene in which Van Helsing tricks the Count into revealing himself (or not revealing himself, as it were) in the mirror, the Glass score punctuates the dramatic moment, rises with the inner fury and fear of the vampire, and then retreats as Dracula composes himself and exits. The music lingers as Dracula excuses himself. “I dislike mirrors,” Dracula grins. “Van Helsing will explain.” As movie quotes go, it’s one of the best in the original film. With the Glass score and the dynamic filmmaking behind it, it’s one of the smartest, best moments in horror film history.

I love Dracula with the Philip Glass score.

Van Helsing will explain.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/1/15: Re-Animator

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: 1985’s Re-Animator.

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Re-Animator, 1985

In 1999, I met Stuart Gordon at a screening of one of his films on campus at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. After the movie, I waited around to introduce myself, asked if I could interview him sometime, and Gordon graciously gave me his card and told me to call him. I should note at this point that I was not working as a journalist and had nowhere to publish the interview, but that’s beside the point. When I called his production office a couple of days later, I got his answering machine, left a message, and assumed I’d never hear back from him.

To my surprise, Gordon did call me back, and we scheduled an interview a week later.

That week, I plowed through all ten of his movies as research for the interview. One evening, as I was re-watching his first film, Re-Animator, my phone rang, and it was Gordon. He was personally calling to reschedule the interview, which we did. After we hung up, though, I marveled at the fact that I had just received a call from minor legend in the horror field WHILE I was watching his iconic, ground-breaking film. I assumed—correctly—that that would never happen again. But it remains one of my favorite stories to this day.

The film itself, Re-Animator, also remains one of my favorites, not just in the horror genre but on my all-time list.

Re-Animator, a loose adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, is the tale of Herbert West, an arrogant young medical student who develops a reagent that can re-animate dead tissue. However, when West decides to experiment on human corpses and injects his reagent into various medical school cadavers, he discovers that they are far less enthusiastic about his experiment than he is.

A campy blend of classical horror archetypes mixed liberally with heavy doses of ‘80’s sex, gore, and violence—not to mention dark, black comedy—Gordon’s first film is wildly entertaining and genuinely frightening at times.

When Re-Animator opened in 1985, critics did not seem to know how to react. The venerable Janet Maslin warned that the film should “be avoided by anyone not in the mood for a major blood bath.” A more generous Roger Ebert wrote of his fellow Chicagoan’s film that Re-Animator is “a frankly gory horror movie that finds a rhythm and a style that make it work in a cockeyed, offbeat sort of way.” And Pauline Kael effused that it was a “horror-genre parody [at] the top of its class.”

Today, the film endures as a true horror classic. Suspense. Scares. Sex and gore. The film opens with a gothic nod to traditional horror and then immediately flashes its Grand Guignol street cred and wicked sense of humor. It takes hold of you and never lets go.

So, thanks, Stuart Gordon, for all the memories.

October 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Re-Animator. To mark the anniversary, Madison Film Guy has published—for the first time—that 1999 conversation with Stuart Gordon. Read “Death is the Monster: A Conversation with Stuart Gordon” now at Madison Film Guy.

 

Black Sabbath

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“I’m…hungry.”

When you or I mutter those words, it might foreshadow an assault on the refrigerator or a quick trip to a favorite gastropub.

But when Boris Karloff utters those words, with his trademark eye twinkle and lip curl, you’d better get yourself and your loved ones inside and lock all the doors and windows.

Such is the lesson of Black Sabbath.

The anthology format has long been a staple of the horror film: bite-size stories strung together either by common source author (1962’s Tales of Terror or 1963’s Twice Told Tales), common creative hook (1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie or 2012’s V/H/S), some sort of common thread that binds the stories together (1988’s Waxworks or 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat), or some other hook.

1963’s Black Sabbath is neither the first nor the best of that tradition, but in uniting Italian master Mario Bava with horror icon Karloff, the film carves out its own delightful niche in horror history.

In addition to starring in one of the three tales of the film, Karloff “hosts” Black Sabbath in a series of cheesy (some might say unfortunate) introductions that offer a few chuckles but function exclusively to get us from one story to the next.

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The first story, called “The Drop of Water”, is set in London and follows the misadventures of an outcall nurse who gets summoned in the middle of the night to prepare the corpse of a witch who died in her mansion home overnight. When the nurse makes the fatal decision to steal the witch’s ring off her hand while she dresses the body, it sets in motion a nightmarish evening of otherworldly revenge. “The Drop of Water” is classic Bava, with gothic atmosphere; sudden, startling images; and a slow march toward inevitable revenge. The first glimpse we see of the dead witch in her bed—crazy eyes wide open, lips curled back in a menacing smile—does send chills up and down the spine, and “The Drop of Water” ends up to be a largely satisfying first chapter of the film.

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“The Telephone”, the second of the three tales, involves a French call-girl who returns home from “work” one evening and begins to receive a series of threatening telephone calls that escalate in their intensity over the course of the night. The sexuality of “The Telephone” is pervasive, not only in the long, lingering shots of lead Michele Mercier’s perfect body and her suggestively sensual interactions with the woman she calls for help, but also in the violently sexual overtones of the threats she suffers. In “The Telephone”, suspense and teasing are two side of the same coin, as are fear and titillation, desire and hatred, and sex and violence. And it is all practically incomprehensible. The original Italian version of the film planted this story firmly in the real world; but in adapting this sequence for American release, changes were made to add supernatural elements to the story. Those changes completely muddle the tale and ultimately undermine the segment, making it by far the weakest of the three.

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The coup de grace, however, is the third segment, “The Wurdalak”, featuring Karloff as Gorca, an elderly Russian vampire-like creature who must feast on the blood of those he loves in order to survive. Bold and atmospheric, “The Wurdalak” feels like the perfect mesh of classic Italian horror and the sensibilities of American International Pictures (AIP), the famous low-budget American studio that distributed Black Sabbath in the United States. A feast of classic horror tropes, “The Wurdalak” offers up vampires stalking the rubble of ruined castles, a baleful child demon, savagery and seduction, and Karloff. Oh Karloff! The horror icon rumbles through “The Wurdalak” like a force of nature, menacing and tragic at the same time, playful but intense, a vintage performance from a master of horror.

Ultimately, Black Sabbath is a bit too uneven to qualify as a total triumph, but the first and last segments offer enough simple pleasures and jolts and scares to satisfy any classic horror lover’s appetite.

Like Karloff’s Gorca, you may start the proceedings with a gnawing hunger that you can’t quite understand, but by the end of Black Sabbath you will have found yourself well-fed and gratified.