24 hours of horror with Joe Dante
Every Halloween season, The A.V. Club invites a director with an affinity for horror films to program an imaginary 24-hour horror film festival that brave A.V. Club readers can re-create at home. This year, programming duties fell to Joe Dante, who’s no stranger to the horror genre as both a fan and filmmaker. Dante grew up as part of a generation of film fans whose love of the form was born of Saturday matinees and the endless repetition of films on television. This love is evidenced in the films he’s made, horror and otherwise, beginning with the beloved Roger Corman-produced B-movie Piranha and extending through such efforts as The Howling, Gremlins, Explorers, Innerspace, The ’Burbs, Small Soldiers, and Looney Tunes: Back In Action. These films are shot through with their director’s affection for genre filmmaking, wicked sense of humor, and strong sense of humanity. Dante’s most recent film, The Hole—which can now be seen on Blu-ray, DVD, and on-demand services—is a bit of a throwback to the ’80s efforts that made him famous, finding adventure and darkness in some seemingly placid suburbs.
One of Dante’s best films is also one of his more overlooked efforts: Matinee is a film that captures the experience of growing up loving horror movies while the real horror of possible nuclear destruction remains forever on the horizon. For his festival, Dante leaned heavily on the sort of movies kids like the protagonist of that film—as well as Dante himself—came of age watching, films that made use of shadow, creepy performances, and the power of suggestion to terrify their viewers. He divided the program into four parts: Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Witches And Demons, and Mad Doctors. The marathon kicks off with a film Dante says sets the bar high for the films that follow.
Part I: Boris Karloff
6 p.m.: The Black Cat (1934)
Joe Dante: I find that it’s sometimes hard to go back to the early-’30s movies after you’ve run movies from the ’80s, so I was actually thinking of what would the proper show order be to keep the audience interested. So I started with The Black Cat partly because it’s a movie for other pictures to live up to: It’s one of the creepiest movies ever made in Hollywood. In fact, Ramsey Campbell actually wrote a whole book about a similar film that was cursed. People who worked on it, terrible things happened to them. Even though the picture was reshot because it was too dark, it’s still one the most bleak portraits of a horror picture that I’ve seen. To me, it was the only Edgar Allan Poe-derived movie that was really like Edgar Allan Poe, even though there’s hardly anything in it but suggestions from Poe. The general mood of darkness is more Poe-like than most of the Poe pictures.
The A.V. Club: If I recall correctly, it just gets darker as it goes along. I remember the finale being really something—
JD: You usually don’t see people skinned alive on screen, although it was in a shadow. This was a pre-Code movie, and it was a little hot even for them, and so they went back. Originally Karloff and [Bela] Lugosi were both bad guys, and then after a preview they decided to go back and make Lugosi the good guy, which probably helped the movie, but I can only imagine what the original was like. And it’s a low-budget movie. It’s really an art director’s triumph, because it doesn’t look as cheap as it really is.
7:40 p.m.: The Black Room (1935)
JD: The Black Room is a picture in which Boris Karloff plays dual roles. He’s a kindly baron, and he’s his evil brother. There’s a prediction that one of the brothers will kill the other, and to keep that from happening, the bad brother kills the good brother and poses as him throughout the picture to marry the comely wench. It’s an interesting picture because it’s a period movie, made by Columbia, which was a very low-budget studio, and mainly on Western sets, from old Western movies, but it’s set in Europe. Roy William Neil was the director, and he’s very underrated. He did most of the Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone; he was a very stylish director. The movie is quite interesting. It was part of the original Shock! package when they originally sold those pictures to television in the ’50s, but since then it really hasn’t gotten much play. It deserves to be better known, and Karloff is actually great in it.
AVC: He’s such a more diverse actor than people give him credit for.
JD: Yeah, he was very versatile within the framework he was allowed to work in. In this picture West Of Shanghai, he plays a Chinese warlord where, even though it’s not PC anymore, he gives an amazing performance.
8:50 p.m.: The Body Snatcher (1945)
JD: This is possibly Boris Karloff’s greatest role. The Frankenstein role is obviously emblematic, but this is probably the most literate horror film of the period, written under a pseudonym by Val Lewton. It’s the Robert Louis Stevenson story, and [Karloff] is the body snatcher. But his character is so shaded and so interesting. He’s an out-and-out villain but he’s very intelligent, and he has a rival with Henry Daniell, who is sort of the Dr. Knox character. They have these spirited exchanges that are really high points, I think, in the horror-movie canon.
AVC: Any last words on Karloff before we move on to the Vincent Price portion of the evening?
JD: I agree with you. I think he was a very underrated actor, and I think he was grateful to be as successful as he was for as long as he was. But if you could go back to some of the things that were lost to us, like some of his performances on Broadway… We’re never going to see what those were like, but apparently they were pretty impressive.
Part II: Vincent Price
10:10 p.m.: House On Haunted Hill (1959)
JD: House On Haunted Hill I chose because as a generic haunted-house movie, it’s really one of the most fun. There’s a really playful sense to this picture. It’s a William Castle movie written by his collaborator, Robb White. Robb White was slightly misogynist in his writings, but he wrote really great bickering between men and women, and Vincent Price’s badinage with Carol Ohmart, his wife, is really priceless, to coin a phrase.
It’s a gimmick movie. It was made to have a skeleton float through the theater at the end of the picture, and the windup makes extremely little sense, but there’s a lot of good shock moments in it. It was remade in the ’80s or ’90s, technically very well, but the remake doesn’t have the heart of the original picture, which is proudly a glorified B-picture.
AVC: A lot of Castle films hold up pretty well as entertaining films, even without the gimmicks.
JD: They do, because I think he had a good sense of pace, and he really knew what he wanted, and he was entertaining an audience that he knew was there. He put his own money into his first picture, and it was a real gamble because he’d been a successful journeyman director, but he wasn’t really getting anywhere. And when he put his mortgage and his house up to make Macabre—which had the insurance gimmick—it was a hit and really propelled the rest of his career.
11:25 p.m.: Confessions Of An Opium Eater (1962)
AVC: Boris Karloff films get revisited and re-shown more often than Vincent Price films these days. Confessions Of An Opium Eater is one I don’t know. What can you tell me about it?
JD: Nobody knows about it. Price was making a lot of these pictures after he had somehow become a horror star. He had already done House Of Wax, which was a popular movie, but he wasn’t really identified with it until he got into the Castle and Corman stuff. Opium Eater is a movie that was made entirely on his name, because there was an audience for those kinds of pictures with him in the lead, even though he’s wildly miscast in it.
This was made by Albert Zugsmith, who was what could be termed a cheerful vulgarian, a director who made pictures like Sex Kittens Go To College. It’s based on Thomas De Quincey’s novel, set in 1800s San Francisco, shot on the Allied Artists backlot. It’s a Fu Manchu picture without Fu Manchu, basically. What’s really interesting about it is there’s a lot of opium-taking in the picture, and there’s a series of really imaginative, low-budget dream sequences involving slow motion that are really trippy. I think they were sort of an early manifestation of what would come in the late ’60s. This movie was seen widely on television, probably not that much in the movies, but widely on television under different titles [including Souls For Sale —ed.], and I can’t help but think that it had some sort of influence, especially if you were under the influence. It’s actually now available from Warner Archive.
1:00 a.m.: The Masque Of The Red Death (1964)
AVC: We’re on to the Roger Corman stage of Vincent Price’s career, with The Masque Of The Red Death.
JD: I chose Masque Of The Red Death because it’s probably the best of the series. It didn’t make the impact that House Of Usher made because that one really came from nowhere in 1960, and the AIP [American International Pictures] pictures up to then had always been black-and-white double features. Corman’s idea was to combine the money for two pictures, make one of them in Cinemascope and color and see if it would be more appealing. And [House Of Usher] was a surprise hit, which led him to the inevitable sequel and the sequels to the sequel. They’re all interior movies, they’re all very stylized, they seldom go outdoors, and if they do go outdoors it’s always a stylized set. But in Masque Of The Red Death, he was able to shoot in England, because they had some money there. The look of the picture is quite a bit different. I mean, the Nicolas Roeg shot of it is quite impressive-looking. The screenplay is really excellent, and Price is much less campy than he had been in some of the previous pictures, and I think it’s a really impressive piece of work. The next picture, The Tomb Of Ligeia, is the one where he took it outdoors, literally outdoors, and it has a completely different look and feel from the rest of the Poe pictures. I love them all, but to me the elements came together in the most felicitous way in Masque Of The Red Death.
2:30 a.m.: Witchfinder General (a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm) (1968)
JD: The director, Michael Reeves, only made a couple of pictures and died soon after making this one. He originally tried to cast Donald Pleasance in this part, but AIP had a lot of money in it, and they said they weren’t going to make the picture unless Price was in it. So Reeves and Price had a very contentious relationship, because Reeves was trying to get him to not do some of the stock things that he had been doing for years. In the margins, he actually ended up producing one of Price’s best performances, which Price later admitted. And he is indeed a terrible, horrible character, a very ruthless and very formidable guy who basically goes around burning witches when he knows that there’s no such thing. It’s all based on a real guy, Matthew Hopkins. It sort of set up a little spate of witchery movies, culminating in, the next on film on our list, The Blood On Satan’s Claw. That’s the same picture, except the witches are real.
4:10 a.m.: The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1970)
JD: It’s not a very well known film, but it’s a beautifully made film, almost an art film. It originally started production as three separate films, and as they were going along they decided to combine all of them into one film. It’s a little episodic, but it’s just a gorgeous film to look at, shot by Dick Bush—who was Ken Russell’s cameraman—all on rural locations. Its sense of location is remarkable, down to the speech patterns.
Part III: Witches And Demons
5:45 a.m.: The Leopard Man (1943)
AVC: The Leopard Man is usually no one’s first choice for a Val Lewton film.
JD: I chose Leopard Man because I think it may have been the first Val Lewton picture I ever saw.
AVC: It’s also really good.
JD: I agree. It’s a really good movie. It’s only 59 minutes, based on a Cornell Woolrich story called Black Alibi. The leopard is the titular villain in the story, but there’s a human villain as well. There are setpieces in this picture, like the young girl who is coming home from the store, and the leopard is underneath the train trestle and chases her home. Her mother won’t let her in, and we see the blood seep through the door. These are images that really stayed with people. I don’t know what it was like in the ’40s when the pictures were new, what kind of people went to see them or if they really gained much attention. I assume they must’ve, because they kept making them.
On television, for most of us kids, these were sold long before the Universals, so these were among the first horror pictures you could see. They were genuinely creepy and they had a mood all their own, which other films didn’t have. It helped that they were RKO, meaning they were low-budget, and therefore there were a lot of shadows to hide the fact that the sets were cheap-looking. All that somehow came into play in these pictures, and they really are a remarkable series of movies. Even the lesser ones are awfully good.
AVC: Just to set the scene, when were these films shown on television? Was it always at night?
JD: There was a program called Million Dollar Movie, which was on the East Coast, and they would run the picture 16 times a week. They would run it at 7:30 and at 10, and on the weekends they would run it three times. With something like King Kong, which they used to cut 20 minutes out of, kids would be able to watch the movie a zillion times, and the Lewton pictures were part of that package.
6:45 a.m.: The Innocents (1961)
JD: The Innocents is Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw, and it’s a story that’s been done in various ways before and since. I think this is the premier version. It’d been done on television before. It’s an adult ghost story that I saw when I was a kid and didn’t quite get what some of the content was, because it goes into very dark areas. It’s still one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, if you define scares by the hairs rising on the back of your neck as opposed to jumping in fear. Deborah Kerr’s performance is just astonishing. It’s, I think, the best performance she ever gave. The picture didn’t really get much credit. It was directed by Jack Clayton, who had done Room At The Top. It’s an impeccably made film. It’s the classiest of ghost stories, often compared to The Haunting, but I think it’s a better picture even though it’s not quite as rich in incident.
8:25 a.m.: Curse Of The Demon (1957)
JD: Curse Of The Demon is a picture that I saw originally on a double bill with Revenge Of Frankenstein in 1958. It was in black and white and the other picture was in color, but the movie everybody came out talking about was Curse Of The Demon. Producers felt the need to show the demon, and there’s a lot of controversy as to whether that ruins the movie. I don’t think it does, because I think the demon is actually pretty cool. But there are many instances where suggestion is what really works as opposed to showing things. [The plot involves] a psychic researcher who is trying to out a supposedly phony medium character who has gotten a lot of acolytes. They pass a paper with runes on it. If you pass the paper unknowingly, that means you’re the victim of the demon. What can I say? It’s such a good movie that I’m actually involved in another movie based on the same story. The original story [“Casting The Runes”] by M.R. James, is ripe for reimagining, but I would never imagine that I would do as good as job as Jacques Tourneur.
Part IV: Mad Doctors
10:00 a.m.: Frankenstein (1931)
JD: I chose to not include Bride Of Frankenstein in this list because it’s so familiar. It is clearly the best of the group, but I thought the other two didn’t get quite enough attention. The original Frankenstein, particularly compared to the original Dracula, is a very fluid early talkie. James Whale really knew how to move the camera and he knew how to move the actors, and it’s a movie that does not creak like a lot of early talkies. [Boris] Karloff’s performance and the way it’s presented and the makeup is really quite remarkable. He’s human and inhuman. Children particularly have always identified with him, even when he kills a little girl. My girlfriend’s son saw the picture when he was 10 years old, and he turned to his mom and said, “He just needed a friend.”
11:10 a.m.: Son Of Frankenstein (1939)
JD: Son Of Frankenstein was the movie that brought horror movies back to life in the late ’30s after a long period of inactivity, much like the monster. It’s a very big, grandiose movie, the most expensive and the longest picture in the series. Basil Rathbone plays, somewhat improbably, Colin Clive’s son, who comes back to the old place and becomes interested in reviving the monster who has been kept alive by Ygor—this broken-necked shepherd—Bela Lugosi in what may be his career-best performance. It’s a movie that’s really startling to look at because it has this amazing expressionistic Art Deco art direction and this rousing music score. The director, Rowland V. Lee, had made a lot of spectacle movies, and he thought Lugosi was getting a raw deal because he was being paid so little, so he managed to rejigger the schedule so Lugosi worked incessantly and made a lot more money.
The amazing thing about this picture is that it finished shooting in December, and it was released early in January. It has one of the most accelerated post-production schedules of any movie, and you would never know it to look at it. It’s very slick and very professional-looking, and I think an underrated movie. It’s the movie that is the most parodied in Young Frankenstein. There are more elements from Son Of Frankenstein that are parodied in that picture than any of the others.
AVC: I remember someone referring to it as one of the most ambitious pre-Citizen Kane movies.
JD: Well, it is. It’s out there. It’s one of those things where I think the studio said, “We need another one of these and we’re going to let Rowland make it.” Then he’s gone over-budget and gone over-schedule or whatever. But they sold it as a prestige picture, and it did very well, obviously well enough to lead to the numerous sequels in the ’40s.
12:45 p.m.: The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958)
JD: The Hammer Frankensteins are somewhat different because they concentrate almost entirely on the doctor, and the monsters vary from picture to picture. I’ve always preferred the Hammer Frankensteins to the Draculas because the Draculas tended to get repetitive quickly, whereas the Frankensteins… Peter Cushing was such an interesting character and he played it with so many different sides that he’s always the most interesting guy in the picture, the smartest guy in the picture, and sometimes the most ruthless guy in the picture.
In Revenge, the first sequel after the original [Hammer version], he’s masquerading as someone else; he’s got a clinic and is supposed to be helping people, but he’s cutting off limbs trying to create a new monster. His intentions are good, but he just never catches a break, and every time one of these monsters comes to life he gets hit on the head, or he gets into a fight with someone, or something bad happens and he ends up becoming a bloodthirsty cannibal. Terence Fisher directed the majority of these pictures, and they really have a special place in the horror-movie canon, I think.
What I found remarkable about these movies—maybe I didn’t then, but do now—is imagining that kids would happily sit through period pictures, both the Hammer pictures and Poe pictures, with their outdated costumes and their outdated dialogue and their drawing-room scenes. We just ate that stuff up, and today, I’m not sure there would be any interest on the part of young people in this era.
2:15 p.m.: Eyes Without A Face (1960)
JD: Eyes Without A Face was originally seen by me under the title The Horror Chamber Of Dr. Faustus, which was a double dose of horror shock with a picture called The Manster, about a guy who grows a second head. For the most part, it’s a standard mad-doctor picture in the sense that there’s a doctor whose daughter is disfigured and he wants to fix her face, and the only way he can do that is by pulling faces off of other people in auto accidents or whatever.
But it’s the style in which the picture is shot that makes it different. Georges Franju was an artist and one of the few to work in that genre in Europe since the silent days. Combined with Maurice Jarre’s dreamy score, the movie moves like a dream. It only occasionally stops for these police-procedural scenes that don’t really do much for me. Even in its dubbed form, it was still a pretty potent picture. The scene in the operation where the face was lifted off, people actually left the theater when I saw it. It’s a good thing it was in black and white.
3:45 p.m.: Tarantula (1955)
JD: Tarantula has a place close to my heart because although it’s not as good as Them, the movie that inspired it, it was the movie that was only playing on Wednesday and Thursday. This meant they weren’t going to play it on the Saturday matinee, and I would have to try to get my father, who was a golf pro and worked very hard and came home very late, to take me to the theater to see Tarantula or else I wasn’t going to get to see it. So I managed to cajole him—I don’t know how I did it—to take me to see Tarantula, and of course it was so scary that I spent most of the movie in the lobby pacing, leaving my father alone in the auditorium to watch the spider movie.
It’s Jack Arnold, who specialized in these kind of things and had done Creature From The Black Lagoon and other films. It’s a very well put-together movie, based on an old Science Fiction Theatre episode. It’s got a good cast, and I think, after Them, the best of the big-bug movies from the ’50s, which were all basically stand-ins for the fear of the atomic bomb that we had. Every time we were in school and a plane would fly over, we would tense up and wait for the whistle of what we thought would be the bomb they were going to drop. All of that stuff made its way into this very popular series of atomic metaphor science-fiction movies with monsters created by science running rampant and killing people. It moved on. It lasted into the early ’60s, this particular genre. It was very big in the ’50s, and it sort of petered out after the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think I made a movie about it.
AVC: Bringing it back to where we started, you said it’s can be hard to get people into the mindset for these films after showing films of the ’80s. The films you chose have been kept alive by people who grew up watching them. Are you optimistic about those films continuing to have an audience into the next generation?
JD: It’s hard to say. Everything has changed so much, not just society but the way films are delivered, the way they’re experienced, and the way they’re seen. My generation remembered going to the movies as an event. We would see these things, we would bring them home, and we would think about them for years because it would take a long time before they would go on television where you could re-experience the fun that you had when you watched them.
Today, everything is instant. The movies are widely available if you want them, but to get kids to sit down and watch even a black-and-white movie is foreign to their experience. For us it was easy, because all television was in black and white when we were kids, and we were very used to it. It doesn’t make any difference to me whether a movie is in black and white or color. But I know some people with kids and I try to introduce them to certain types of movies, and they have to get over the initial barrier that there’s no color. They ask, “Where’s the color? What happened to the color?” It’s as if there’s something wrong with the movie. The idea of black and white as an art form is something they’ve never been exposed to.
How long will these things last? I don’t know. Universal is having their 100th anniversary, and they’re trotting out all the old classics and showing them in Hollywood in beautiful DCP [digital cinema package] versions. People are showing up, but how long will they be able to do that? I don’t know. What’s the shelf life of a 1931 movie? If it still exists, there will always be film buffs and a niche audience who will want to see it. But in terms of people even understanding in common usage, some of the words we use to describe these movies, I don’t know how long that’s going to last. Everything’s going so fast, and there are so many options for entertainment. I’ve sort of closed my mind off to reality shows: I just don’t watch them, don’t care about them, don’t know who the characters are, but they’re all in general usage. These are things that are in people’s minds in everyday life in the way these pictures were when I was young. I think it’s a good idea that they’re being preserved, because I think there’s a lot to learn from older films, but whether I think they’ll ever be “popular” in the way James Bond movies are still popular, I don’t know. I think the jury’s out.