I always get a little nostalgic around this time of year. Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays; it’s a great equalizer in the generation gap. Kids and adults can partake equally in the costuming …and sugar-gorging. Hell, my all-time favorite costume accomplishment was Silent Bob and I was in my mid thirties when I made it!
But beyond the get-ups and sugar-highs is the real reason for the season – celebrating that which scares the bejesus out of you. With all due respect to haunted houses and ghost tours, the most endearing Halloween scare tactic is the scary movie.
Monster movies were my gateway drug into the sci fi genre. I can remember watching Godzilla as a little kid and being quite sad when he met his demise at the hands of the oxygen destroyer bomb. This is how I knew, early on, that I was destined for geekdom.
I didn’t cry when I discovered the truth about Santa.
I didn’t cry when I lost my first tooth.
But I cried for Godzilla.
None of my early scary movie experiences were of the technicolor variety. Frankenstein, Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Dracula all had the same grayish complexion and bloodless visual effects that were more about suspense than gore. There was no theme music or layered sound effects when Frankenstein (actually, he’s The Monster – he was never named Frankenstein) appeared from the shadows. There was just silence. That was pretty unnerving. After all, if there’s something that lets you know there is something coming, you’re less likely to be scared when you see it.
To this day I can’t get really scared at a horror scene with a blaring sound track to build suspense and tension.
Bride of Frankenstein was a monster with emotion. She wasn’t as scary as she was disturbing; that lifeless face highlighted by those striking, huge eyes. Frankenstein’s monster didn’t have eyes like that. Dracula had a creepy, evil look about him – with the eyes to match it. But he wasn’t disturbing. Wolfman and the Gill Man (Creature from the Black Lagoon) were all about make-up and costume. There wasn’t room for subtleties there. The Bride had something more, and not just because she was a female – although that could be part of it. There was humanity in her; something that didn’t belong in a monster’s body. It was angry and terrified at the same time. That juxtaposition is really what horror is all about. The sense that something is not right; That something is blatantly not normal and yet you can’t put your finger on what it is but it doesn’t matter because it’s coming for you.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon was just cool. I never saw it as any kind of horror or scare film. Like Godzilla, the Gill Man was a freak who lashed out a the people who pissed him off. But he had one big thing going for him… he swam. Not just walking on the bottom of the lake or sinking and then re-appearing from a surface view. You saw him swimming under the surface. A few years ago, at Orlando’s annual Screamfest (now Spooky Empire) Convention, I got to meet the guy who wore the Gill Man suit in the underwater scenes – Ricou Browning.
Ricou, who was a diver at Silver Springs, Florida, was the guide for the scouting crew that was looking for locations to film Creature. He’s not the tallest guy, so his height served to make the surrounding area that much deeper. But what caught the scout’s interest was the way he swam.
“I swim the way the Creature swims,” he told me. “It’s like a crawl; I use my arms to pull me forward as my legs kick. They saw me swimming and asked if I would be willing to act in the underwater scenes.”
I spoke at length with him about the costume and how they managed to hide an aqua lung underwater so he could catch a breath… all the while thinking, “Damn! This guy was one of my favorite monsters! I’ve known this dude All My Life!”
Destined for geekdom.
When color was introduced into my scary movie experience, thanks to Hammer Films, things got weird. I remember first seeing Christopher Lee as Dracula on a PBS horror movie marathon. The vision of bloody fangs amid his grimacing visage was shocking-at-least. For the first time, I was seeing blood in a horror movie.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw Lee as Dracula, but it was years, literally years, before I would watch another Hammer film or any scary movie in color. That’s how effective it was. Sadly, the more blood I saw, the less scary it became. The impact of the first sight of a bloody scene wore off with every slash, stab and beheading.
Yet those bloodless scenes without a soundtrack still hold my attention like a little kid who cries for Godzilla and watches in amazement as the Gill Man swims.
All due respect to horror’s Big Three – Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers. I still love the first Halloween, and whenever AMC has it’s annual marathon, I’m there! But there is something more endearing about the classics. They hold up, in spite of the detachment and desensitizing that comes from years of gore films.
Some things change. Some things get better with age. But the best stuff takes you back.