Decade Dialogues: Pre-1960

This is a long, perilous journey that we have begun.  So, we thought it would be a neat idea to occasionally stop and reflect on where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.  What you are about to read is a discussion of our intentionally short period clump of 1930-1959.  After setting up several questions to tackle, we entered into our thoughtful discussion to directly sound off to each other and do some discussion of the period as a whole.  And if you read something that you don’t agree with, feel free to chime in.

Jekyll and Hyde poster

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Question 1: Do these films define the time period?

Warden Walker:   I feel that we may have missed too much of the important films to really say that these films define the 30-year period that they represent for us.  I definitely feel that some of the films we watched are some of the best films from the period, but I do not feel that they are representative.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Black Cat, and The Wolf Man touch on what I understand the ’30s to be about, and you know better than I, but the way I understand it is that the ’30s and ’40s are awash with bad horror films feeding on a fresh market.  And I think that to define that period, we would need to watch Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Phantom of the Opera.

The Man in Black: Definitely.  In my opinion, we watched the best of the best of 1930s horror films(with the notable exclusion of Bride of Frankenstein), but when doing my own research for my history thesis paper, I noticed a lot of similarities in regards to the quality of 1930s and current horror films: lots of duds intertwined with some genuinely impressive films.  And I think there were some classic 1930s films that we missed out on (White Zombie, Freaks, The Masque of the Red Death, etc.).  And it became even harder as we entered into the 1940s and 1950s to say that the films we watched define the period, as we only watched 2 (or 3, I cannot remember) films per decade.  Do you think it is even possible for us to have defined any time period by the films?  The upcoming 1960s decade is going to contain a lot more films, but we’ll still miss out on films.

WW: Yes, I think that moving forward this question will become more apparent and will actually change.  It will not be “Do these films define the period?”  It will instead be “Which of these films defined the decade?”  But for this pre-1960s period, I think that in choosing movies that we simply had an interest in (in our desire to push towards the modern heart of horror) we definitely did not manage to capture any particular sense of the horror movies of the period.  However, The Thing from Another World was a great little taste of 1950s films in general, and probably a decent touch of what monster movies of the ’50s were like, excepting that most others are simply lathered in cheese.

MIB: Cheese monsters are delicious.

WW:  Indeed.

Vampyr poster

Vampyr (1932), directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Question 2: Any holes missing in the films we saw?  Was there a particular film/genre/decade that should have gotten more treatment than it did?

MIB:  Again, not to toot my own horn (because if I did that, it would be in the privacy of my own room, thank you very much), I felt like there were two film genre’s we missed out on: Val Lewton films and giant monster movies.  I’m not as sad that we missed the Lewton films: they’ve received a ton of critical analysis and attention over the last decade or so, and while both of our viewpoints may offer something unique, it’s not as big a deal.  The bigger item that I felt we missed out on was the giant monster films, specifically King Kong (1933) and Gojira (1954).  These are major films that are not only horror based, but also influential on movie culture

WW:  This is a sticky area for me (and not because I walked into your room) because I tend to recognize this genre as being something distinct from horror.  I will readily recognize Gojira as a great horror film.  However, King Kong creates a problem for me, because I see it more as a giant monster-adventure movie rather than a giant monster-horror movie.  And the bigger problem is Godzilla himself, as he defines the genre of giant monster movies.  The Godzilla series has a long history of films that bend genres like you wouldn’t believe, but I simply would not call these movies horror, at least beyond the original and maybe a couple of the ’90s movies.  So, I think Gojira would be a fine addition to what we watched, but I don’t think we missed a whole giant monster subgenre.

MIB: Some (okay, a lot) of Godzilla movies are just b-movie fun, this I cannot disagree with you.  However, I think a lot of the tropes and ideas of the giant monster movie makes it into more films than you might think, and that these films do deserve our attention.  King Kong (1933) does sway into that grey area of Action / Horror, and I think it does fall more towards action, but there are plenty of other films that are rightly defined as horror (or incorporating horror elements).  Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, The Host: all are good horror films.  Again, for each one of those we get something like Attack of the 50,000 Ft. Woman, or Godzilla Vs. Megalon (shudder), but I’m still an advocate for the genre as horror.

WW:  Okay, here.  I totally agree that there is influence and that examining something like Gojira before sitting down to watch Jurassic Park is a good idea.  But I can’t accept Kong as horror, and I don’t see you throwing out any other titles to consider.  But to return to the original question, I definitely think we missed a lot of things, because the opening decades of horror popularity are hugely influential.  But the problem is that I know that most of these movies are not good or at least problematic for holding the attention of modern audiences.  So, truthfully, I’m not worried about brushing through the ’30s and ’40s the way we did.

Black Cat poster

The Black Cat (1934), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

MIB: Fair enough, sir! Fair enough.  And a quick retraction, I think one of the most important reasons I wanted to cover Val Lewton films was due to my insistence on describing Cat People to everyone and seeing their reactions.  A woman turns into a panther whenever sexually aroused! What’s not to like about that?

Question 3: What was your favorite film?  And which do you think was the best?

MIB:  This seemed like a tough choice at first, but after thinking about it, there really wasn’t much of a contest here.  The Black Cat was far and away my favorite film we saw.  All of the elements in the movie blend perfectly together: horror legends (Lugosi and Karloff), a brisk pace, excellent plotting, and moody atmosphere.  It was really just a fun, great horror movie.  An honorable mention must be given to Curse of the Demon, but really, The Black Cat takes it for me.

WW:  Without a doubt, you’ve hit on the two films that stand head and shoulders above the rest out of the seven that we watched.  And I’m in agreement with you; The Black Cat is simply the most fun to watch of all of these movies.  The Karloff v. Lugosi bout is just captivating, and as someone who is ever attentive to a good horror atmosphere, I think the setting of Black Cat is a lesson in spookiness and sterility.  So yeah, Black Cat was definitely my favorite.  But it is a very close call because, frankly, I thought that Curse of the Demon was actually the better film.  I would just suggest that the slight difference in my grading between the two films is explainable as the difference of 20 years between the films as expectations rise as the industry progresses.

MIB:  So, then would you say that you grade films that are made in later decades with a more critical eye? Or that you grade both fairly but ignore more faults of earlier films?

WW: I definitely think I’m more willing to forgive faults in earlier films.  I think The Black Cat is a remarkable gem among a sea of early horror films that I’m ready to rip to pieces if you put them on in front of me.  But the fact that Black Cat is just so entertaining in spite of the period that it was made in definitely colored my grade for the film.  Whereas the missteps of Curse of the Demon tend to make me think, “Well, they should know better,” or simply, “This is a flaw of the filmmakers, not the time period.”  Does that make sense?

Wolf Man poster

The Wolf Man (1941), directed by George Waggner

MIB:  Oh, totally. What I’m getting is that, despite the technical failures (and to the film’s credit, I don’t think there are many at all), The Black Cat still succeeds overall as a fun and entertaining horror film, whereas Curse of the Demon is a stronger, more complex film but stumbles in the technical department with some odd cuts and bad special effects at times.  The Black Cat seems to work within the constraints of its time, whereas Curse of the Demon decides to maybe overstep its boundaries too much.

WW:  Hm, that may be true.  But truthfully, I did not find Curse of the Demon‘s technical attempts displeasing.  When they made the film, they may have been attempting things generally unseen before, but I think they truly succeeded with some brilliant effects.  If you’re attacking the monster again, I’ll just say that I’ve already spoken my piece on that.  But I do think that both films made slight mistakes throughout, and what makes the difference for me was that Curse of the Demon just had one rock-solid plot and no dialogue to pick apart for any reason.  The Black Cat is entertaining, but the plot is problematic at times.

MIB:  Hmm. Well, on the topic of the monster, I felt that it worked really well in a far distance, because once you saw it up close, well, it was rather ‘meh’ looking.  However, to return to your original point of addressing which film was the best horror film, I’d have to make the argument for Dead of Night.  This was the only film we watched that I attained any sort of dread from watching the film, and I’ve always found this to be a great indicator of a film’s merit as a horror film.  Scares notwithstanding, I feel that while it had many more problems than either Black Cat or Curse of the Demon, Dead of Night succeeded in bringing together a variety of horror genre’s and horror elements and blended them together.  That final nightmare sequence of the film (and the ensuing twist ending) are done so masterfully well that I can’t ignore its contributions to the horror genre.  Yes, Dead of Night has its share of serious problems (that terrible golfer story and some bad dialogue), but I still feel it’s the best horror film we’ve watched.

WW:  I can respect that.  But as much as I did like most of Dead of Night, the story with the dummy is the only part of the film that stands out to me as being worthy of that honor.

Dead of Night poster

Dead of Night (1945), directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, and Robert Hamer

Question 4: What was your least favorite film?  Or, better yet, which film wasn’t worth our time?

WW: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Aside from some interesting moments of sexuality in early film, there was nothing worthwhile to see in that movie.

MIB: I knew as soon as I typed the question, that would be your response.  How you pain me so!  I’ll admit it’s lost its luster, but I thought the film did a lot of cool and interesting things, and it’s got a ton of sexuality in the film. That should be worth price of admission alone!

WW:  No, it has a ton of references to sexuality because they couldn’t show any of it or discuss it directly.

MIB: In my mind, it makes little difference to whether sexuality is openly shown or discussed or whether it’s veiled.  Because sexuality is discussed with a veil over it, I feel that it is a much more subjective film, but still brutal nonetheless.  I mean, the scenes in which the prostitute screams to Jekyll that Mr. Hyde likes to give her bruises speaks to the primal sexuality that Hyde represents.  That’s not diminished.  Granted, yes, it would be more brutal if we saw the violence occur, but in some cases, it’s not necessary (unless you’re watching Irreversible.  That’s a film not for the faint of heart, but has extreme sexual content and violence).

WW: I’m not saying that I want my sexual abuse to be graphic.  But I am saying that the whole premise of the movie is taking a giant literary metaphor for sexual repression and trying to turn it into a horror movie.  And I found it all to be painful.

MIB:  That’s an apt criticism, and one that I really can’t provide any counter argument for.  But I still stand by my original argument (and review) of Jekyll and Hyde. But to answer the original question, I’d have to say Vampyr wasn’t worthwhile at all. Despite it being the only silent film we saw, it was only good for two things: giving us some interesting images to use as screen captures, and a super sweet death of the evil doctor being buried in flour. That was rocking.  Otherwise, it was confusing, and worse yet for a silent film: boring. That’s the kiss of death for a modern film viewer

WW:  Definitely.  That was a tough one to get through.

The Thing from Another World poster, The Thing poster, Howard Hawks

The Thing from Another World (1951), directed by Christian Nyby

Question 5: Something that surprised you when viewing the films?   

MIB:  One of the first things that struck me when doing this retrospective was that the body count in these films is considerably lower than modern films (something we witnessed when we watched The Wolf Man and The Wolfman).  That struck me as evidence of the escalation of horror violence.

WW:  That’s an interesting point, but I would claim that someone could adequately trace an escalation in societal violence.  It’s evident in so much more than horror, and I think that horror isn’t necessarily the most closely tied to it.  Early horror is probably most evidently tied back by censorship codes.  However, American society went through a big change that I would cite with the Vietnam War and the change in the presentation of the war.  The American public was suddenly faced with death on a terrifying scale.  I think that is what showed the American people what real horror was and that is why we can’t escape a body count as the primary form of horror.  I don’t know, just a thought.

MIB:  You should write a paper about that.

WW: Nah, too philosophical for me.  Besides, that’s about all I got.  But the biggest surprise for me was probably just The Thing from Another World itself.  I had really low expectations and it surprised me with how good it was.

MIB:  That’s true. I forgot we watched that. Good call!    

Question 6: After all, horror is a celebration of violence.  What was your favorite kill from the ones we saw? (excluding The Wolfman, even though there were some sweet kills in that one)

MIB: I think mine would have to go to the one I’ve already mentioned.  Being buried alive in flour.  It really doesn’t get much worse than that.  Honorable mention goes to the most hilarious death, which was the golfer in the Dead of Night story who just randomly walked into a lake after losing a bet.  Terrible story, awesome image.

WW:  Yeah, that Vampyr death was really awesome.  But for me, I’m going to go with the death of Karswell at the end of Curse of the Demon.  Running towards an oncoming train with the demon hot on his trail, only to be picked up by the demon and ripped and mashed and shredded by those huge claws, and the whole attack was lit by the flickering lights from the train whizzing past.  I just thought that scene was awesome.

MIB: I totally forgot about that scene.  Hmm. That’s my honorable 3rd mention, ha.

Curse of the Demon poster, Night of the Demon poster

Curse of the Demon (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur

Final Question: Yea or Nay on the 1930s – 1950s.  Overall, did you enjoy these films? Or were you left yearning for modern films?

WW:  Overall, nay.  I felt very meh about the slight majority of the seven movies we watched, and since they were supposed to be the best of what’s to find in the era, I’ll pass on the rest of it so that we can get to the 1970s already, haha.

MIB: 1970s! Just skipping ahead of the ’60s are we?  I, of course, am unusual and have a fondness for these films.  There’s just something antiquated about how they treat horror, and how the films have evolved over time.  Overall, yea.

WW:  What can I say? I’m ready for Halloween.  But that’s cool.  I mean, I’m not saying I wouldn’t come back if we find some films that we want to come back and review, but I generally have a hard time getting into the old stuff.

MIB:  Very understandable. They’re an acquired breed of film watching.  But we made it!  On to the 1960s, where we’ll get Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, and some previously unseen gems that neither of us have seen.  I’m excited!

WW:  Rockin’.

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About Warden Walker

I’ve had a tense couple of days. And I’ve got to tell you, burning someone’s face off sounds like a great way to relax. View all posts by Warden Walker

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