Updated: Jan 30
If you’re not going to obey Andy Williams’ musical rules of holiday fun, then you’re just going to shortchange yourself on the most wonderful time of the year.
”There'll be scary ghost stories And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
-The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, song, 1963
The joy of a classic horror tale told beneath the holiday lights and stockings has long been forgotten by most Americans. Oh, we do have terrifying 21stCentury Christmas slasher movies and realistic paranormal special effects, but honestly…those films are far too nightmarish for children and old people.
Telling holiday ghost stories was a centuries-old tradition until the birth of movie stars and Christmas was sold to cigarette and soda companies. A revival of a more tranquil, non-threatening holiday horror tradition could be just what we need to forget the real horrors of the world and the over-commercialization of Christmas.
Let’s start with some sweet horror from producer William Castle, the gimmick king of the Saturday matinee. In the 1950s and early 60s, a kid knew they were going to see more than just a picture at a William Castle movie. A skeleton might fly through the theater as it did with House on Haunted Hill (1959) or a buzzer might be under your seat to give you a vibrating tingle during certain moments of The Tingler (1959). Both films starring the kids' favorite horror star Vincent Price.
If you wore special glasses provided by the theater during the showing of 13 Ghosts (1960), you could see a baker’s dozen poltergeists on the screen. No need for the glasses now at home.
If you wanted to punish the cruel and disfigured Mr. Sardonicus (1961), William Castle let you vote on the matter at the end of the movie. Of course, punishing the villain was always the winner at every performance.
“I love William Castle. He inspired me to become a filmmaker, but I was a puppeteer when I was a kid and he effected that part of my career very negatively, because I’d try to put some of his gimmicks into my puppet shows and they just didn’t work and the parents thought I was insane.”
-John Waters, director of Pink Flamingos (1972) and Hairspray (1988)
You can never go wrong with Fay Wray, Hollywood’s original Scream Queen. Of course, King Kong (1933) is the first film that comes to mind, but make sure you watch the restored version. You don’t want to miss Kong stepping on and eating people.
The Vampire Bat, made that same year and co-starring Melvyn Douglas and Lionel Atwill, is an absolutely charming mix of atmospheric horror and light comedy. The two creepiest of Fay Wray’s films of the 1930s also co-starred Lionel Atwill. They are Dr. X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and they were the last horror movies made in the two-strip color process, which gives them an unearthly look and strange dream-like tension. Mystery of the Wax Museum was remade as House of Wax in 3D in 1953 starring Vincent Price. That version is much better known and more widely seen, but it pales in comparison to the pre-code creepiness of the weirdly colored original.
“So, I was asked to do horror film after horror film, a series of about five, after that, and some of those were a little too gruesome. I wasn't too comfortable all the time in those. I didn't really care for them.”
Producer and director George Sherman could create a chiller atmosphere when he needed it. The Lady and the Monster (1944) is an excellent example of his horror vision collaborating with cinematographer John Alton. The movie was remade in 1953 as Donovan’s Brain starring Nancy Davis, the future First Lady of the United States when she was known as Nancy Reagan. However, the original has a couple of interesting actors. First, one of the world’s greatest directors turned actor Erich von Stroheim who brings his power to make an audience feel weak and uncomfortable. Second, there is the film’s star Vera Ralston, a former Czech figure skater and Olympian who insulted Adolph Hitler to his face at the 1936 Winter Games. Hitler asked her if she wanted to skate for the swastika. She told The Fuhrer, “I’d rather skate on the swastika.” The Fuhrer was not amused.
Just having Bela Lugosi in a film during his prime is an atmosphere in itself. Throw in some zombies and that’s the icing on the cake. White Zombie (1932) is the first feature film about zombies, although they’re not the fleshing-eating zombies we’ve come to know. These are just mind-controlled, half-dead folks working as unpaid laborers and killers in the sugar cane fields of Haiti. Once the zombie master, played by Lugosi, puts his evil eye on you…bam! You’re now a member of a zombie crew.
For pure atmospheric horror, no one has ever done it better than producer Val Lewton. His shadowy stalking aura around Simone Simon in Cat People (1942) and his dark imagery permeating a voodoo world in I Walked with a Zombie (1943), are art at its finest and both are among the best made films of any genre or time period.
Val Lewton produced an astounding string of 13 visually unforgettable films for RKO in the 1940s. He worked with some of the best directors, but every one of those films was “A Lewton Film” stamped with his unique style.
“We tossed away the horror formula right from the beginning.”
- Val Lewton
“The three films we made together had a feel that was very poetic which stayed with me afterwards. I’m not so dumb!”
- Jacques Tourneur, director of Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man
So, you say it’s gelatinous blobs you want for the holidays? Well, besides your aunt’s delicious ambrosia salad, there’s none better than the festive rolling red original The Blob (1958). The film features Steve McQueen (credited as Steven McQueen) in his first lead role. He turned down a offer of 10% of the film’s profits and took an upfront salary of $3000. The $100,000 film was a huge hit and made $4 million at the box office. McQueen used his $3000 to pay his rent and light bill.
Want your blob served with a slice of science fiction? Maybe you should go with these two choices from our horror menu. First there is The Creeping Unknown a.k.a. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). It features a haunting silent performance by Richard Wordsworth as an astronaut slowly morphing into a slimy, creepy crawl thing from outer space.
“It’s a performance that’s filled with odd gestures, weird body movements, and creepy stares. It’s got to be seen to be believed.”
-Ernest Dickerson, director of Juice (1992) and Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
The second choice was once a planned sequel to The Creeping Unknown in the Barnard Quatermass franchise, but Quatermass’s creator and writer said no way. Luckily, Hammer Films went on with the project and a different lead character and the result was a thoughtful and intellectual battle against a blob named X the Unknown (1956)
If you like your blob served with a dash of Mayan deity, Caltiki-The Immortal Monster (1959) is the devouring shapeless man-eater for you. This Italian production was made to target the U.S. market, so there’s a lot of gross black blob death for the kiddies.
“I saw this movie about a million times when I was a kid and it grossed me out. It had some of the grossest “people being devoured by a giant ameba” scenes I had ever seen.”
-Ernest Dickerson, director
Sticking with a holiday blob theme for just a moment longer, Quatermass 2 a.k.a. Enemy from Space (1957) makes for an easy segue to science fiction in this story. In this Sci-fi/Horror extravaganza, Bernard Quatermass investigates a mysterious factory supposedly making synthetic food for the fine people of the United Kingdom. Without giving away the ending and since Enemy from Space is in the title, let me just say the food turns out to be a couple of giant space blobs ready to dine on the fine people of the United Kingdom.
Sticking with the food from outer space theme now…man, these segues sure make it easy on a writer with a toothache…anyway, James Arness a.k.a. Marshall Matt Dillion of Gunsmoke, is a giant space alien carrot man in the 1951 original version of The Thing from Another World. This film is still listed among the greatest Sci-fi films of all-time, mainly because of its innovative use of overlapping dialogue and tense pacing. Don’t let that “Carrot Man” stuff foul you. Time Magazine calls the movie the best science fiction film of the 1950s.
Another of the truly great science fiction films of the 1950s in Invaders from Mars (1953), which sees a Martian invasion of Earth through the eyes and mind of a kid. Filmed in “SuperCinecolor” (basically the old two-strip color process cranked up a notch), this visually odd and brightly colored space invaders of shadow and light was without a doubt constructed for the psyche of a 1950s youngster. Still, it has a curious outer space film noir appeal to adults.
Despite the obvious sexism in the title, the Devil Girl from Mars (1954) is a leather clad, raygun shooin’, giant robot commandin’, no nonsense grown-ass woman looking for men to repopulate her planet kitschy masterpiece.
It seems the Martians let the battle of the sexes get out of hand and now all the Martian men are dead. I guess the Martian women didn’t think that one through.
One very important part of this wonderfully over the top space invading drama…the Devil Girl from Mars in not Agnes Moorehead. People often make that mistake, but she is in fact Patricia Laffan as Nyah from Outer Space, who’s other most notable role is that of Empress Poppaea in Quo Vadis (1951).
“Mrs. Jamieson, may I introduce your latest guest. Miss Nyah. She comes from Mars.”
-Michael Carter, newspaper reporter
Oh, well, that'll mean another bed.
-Mrs. Jamieson, owner of The Bonnie Prince Charlie Inn
Finally, there are the tried-and-true holiday horror stories from Universal Pictures. You know ‘em. You love ‘em. There’d be no real horror films today without them. Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931, The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Wolf Man (1941) to name a few.
There’s one more classic Universal chiller that should be added to your holiday viewing list. It’s The Old Dark House from 1932. A group of traveling strangers find themselves stranded in an old house in the Welsh countryside during a terrible storm. The house is inhabited by a creepy and totally dysfunctional family. The cast is unquestionably up to the task. It includes Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, and a 22-year old actress named Gloria Stuart. 65 years later, Stuart’s career would shoot into the stratosphere when she became the oldest nominee in Oscar history at age 86 for her role as the elderly Rose in Titanic (1996). It seems her career at Universal back in the 1930s was not what she saw in her future.
"I quit after my seven-year contract with Universal was up. I quit for 33 years."
So, as you bask in the warmth of the holiday cheer, just give a little thought to reviving this horror tradition from the days of yore, and adding a little spookiness to the season.
HAPPY HORROR HOLIDAYS!