In August 1975, BBC2 started showing late night horror movie double bills; these ran for a couple of months every year until 1981. Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are watching these with my Dad. He wasn’t a big horror fan, but seeing these films with him was how my fascination with the genre started.
That year, I was ten and Saturday not being a school night, I was allowed to stay up a little later than normal, much to my younger brother’s annoyance. The movies usually started somewhere between ten and eleven; the first was a '30s or '40s classic, while the second was of a more recent vintage and was considered too adult for my tender years. This probably had more to do with sex and nudity than violence and gore.
The only film I remember seeing from that first season was The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), and while I remember it having a very creepy atmosphere, it is most memorable for introducing me to Peter Lorre. His twitchy, nervous performance is easily the highlight and I’ve been a fan ever since.
I had to wait a whole year for my next installment of vintage thrills, and once again, only one film has really stuck in my memory. Like The Beast With Five Fingers the previous year, The Walking Dead (1936) introduced me to a horror icon; this time, Boris Karloff. He’s the walking dead of the title, an innocent man executed for murder who’s brought back to life by the usual mad scientist only to use his second lease on life to exact revenge on those who set him up. It’s a fairly standard '30s shocker but it makes the most of Karloff, allowing him to bring a little pathos to the part. The director, Michael Curtiz, would go on to much bigger things, including Casablanca.
Each year had an overall theme; the first two were "Fantastic Double Bill" and "Masters of Terror" respectively. In 1977, it was "Dracula, Frankenstein, and Friends" and it introduced me to the classic Universal monsters.
The first week brought Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) and marked the first time I was allowed to watch both movies. This had less to do with my advancing years (I was 12, for those keeping score) and more to do with the films broadcast that week.
I thoroughly enjoyed Dracula, not least for the wonderfully theatrical performance of Bela Lugosi. Bela wasn’t as good an actor as Karloff — he was hampered by that accent, for a start — but made the most of his big break. He was already familiar with the role, having played the part in the theatre a few years before.
Up next was James Whale’s classic in which Karloff, without the use of words, managed to imbue the monster with such an air of sadness that I couldn’t help sympathizing with him. For me, the villain of the film has always been Colin Clive’s Dr. Henry Frankenstein. This is one of my all time favorite horror films and one I still watch regularly.
The following week brought companions for the monsters. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) picked up where the first film left off and I was relieved to find the monster had survived. While it’s rated by many as superior to the first film, I was a little disappointed. Dr. Pretorius' little people in jars seemed silly even to my young mind — after all, if he could make such perfect little people, why all the fuss about reanimating a corpse? Karloff was still good, of course, although I preferred the monster mute and Elsa Lanchester showed why females were best avoided. The second film was Brides of Dracula (1960), and being a Hammer film, it was off to bed for me.
I was allowed to watch both films again the next week. This time, it was The Mummy (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941) on offer. I found The Mummy a little dull, although it was nice to see Mr Karloff again.
The second film was a different matter entirely. There is a poignancy about Lon Chaney Jr’s performance that is every bit as powerful as Karloff’s in Frankenstein. Lugosi was on hand as the gypsy Bela (maybe they thought he’d have trouble remembering another name) and Claude Rains plays Lon’s father. Yes, that’s right, little Claude is hulking Lon’s dad. Methinks perhaps his mum fraternised with one of the hired help; that, or she was a BIG woman. The ending of the film brought a tear to this child’s eye — I guess I’ve always sympathised with the monsters.