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How I Learned To Love Being Scared

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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.

The next three weeks brought Son of Frankenstein (1939), Dracula's Daughter (1936), and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Son of Frankenstein featured the teaming of Lugosi and Karloff with Boris in the now familiar role of the monster and Bela as Ygor. Lugosi steals the film as the deeply unpleasant Ygor, rising to the challenge of working with both Karloff and Basil Rathbone as Frankenstein’s heir.

Dracula’s Daughter, however, was a real disappointment. Not only was the big D completely absent, but Gloria Holden was anything but a chip off the old block. She made Lucille Ball seem scary by comparison.

Thankfully, things picked up again the next week with The Ghost of Frankenstein. Big Lon Chaney managed to fill Karloff’s boots pretty well and Lugosi was back as Ygor. Roger Corman’s The Premature Burial (1962) was the other film shown that night, and having seen the trailers, I was eager to see it. Sadly, it was not to be (at least, not that night), and once again (after a little grumbling), off to bed I went.

I was allowed another double fix of frights next. Both The Raven (1935) and The Black Cat (1934) teamed Karloff and Lugosi in adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories. Of course, at the time, I had no idea who Poe was, I was just pleased to be reunited with my heroes. While neither film provided the creatures I had become used to from Universal, both kept me glued to my seat.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) made up for the lack of monsters the week before, as it teamed Frankenstein’s creation with Larry Talbot, aka The Wolf Man. Bela got to try on the monster’s platform heels, but couldn’t compete with Lon Chaney reprising his greatest role. Once again, this sad, lonely man, cursed through no fault of his own to become a werewolf, moved me.

House of Frankenstein (1944) added Dracula to the mix — three monsters for the price of one! It also acted as my introduction to another horror great; John Carradine was a taller, thinner, more debonair Dracula. Karloff returned to the series, but sadly, not as the monster; that part went to Glenn Strange, whose performance was somewhat lacking in comparison. Chaney, though, was as good as ever. I really cared about poor Larry and his plight kept me enthralled.

Chronologically, next week was a step backward with Son of Dracula (1943). Chaney got to play another of the monster greats and was surprisingly good as Dracula. This one was as much a mystery as a horror movie, but still good fun.

The final film of the year was also the finale of the Universal series (not counting Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein). In House of Dracula (1945), Strange’s monster was once again overshadowed by Carradine’s Dracula and Chaney’s Wolf Man, but they were so good it hardly mattered.

The following year, my three favourite horror stars (at least, they were then) returned. Lugosi made two appearances; Murders in the Rue Morgue (1933) and White Zombie (1932) both provided the requisite thrills and chills. Karloff appeared in the lacklustre Voodoo Island (1957) and Chaney in the equally disappointing Man Made Monster (1940), but the year’s highlights were two '50s SF classics.

Them! (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) were an obvious pairing as both dealt with the perils of radiation. The threat of giant irradiated ants was the theme of Them! but it wasn’t the insects themselves but the sound they made that was the creepiest thing about the film. James Whitmore and James Arness were the intrepid heroes.

The Incredible Shrinking Man had a similar theme, but in reverse, and this time, it wasn’t bugs, it was man who felt the effects. The special effects are amazing and the showdown with the spider may have something to do with my fear of the little buggers; it still creeps me out today. Grant Williams' central performance is what carries the film along and it’s aided no end by Richard Matheson’s excellent script from his source novel. The closing monologue gives the film the feeling of a mini (or should that be micro?) epic. Director Jack Arnold also made The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, and his own giant insect (okay, arachnid) movie, Tarantula. He also made the excellent Audie Murphy western No Name on the Bullet, but this is his finest hour.

We’ve reached 1979 and now 14, I was finally allowed to watch both movies regardless of when they were made. That year's "Masters of Terror" season brought the delights of Hammer and an introduction to the horror films of one of my favourite actors — Peter Cushing. Until then, I’d known him mainly for his kind old man roles epitomised in the two Doctor Who films and as cinema's greatest mass murderer, Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars.

First came his take on the Baron in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and while he’d get better in later entries of the series, he’d already become, in my young mind, the definitive Frankenstein. Christopher Lee was a new face to me at the time and, here, it was a face covered in makeup in order to play Victor’s creation. Lee’s monster had none of the sadness of Karloff’s version and consequently made less of an impact.

Having made the role of Frankenstein his own, he next showed he was also a fine Sherlock Holmes in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). The film was preceded by Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944), featuring Basil Rathbone as the super sleuth. This was the start of my fascination with Holmes and these two actors are still my personal favourites, although Cushing was much better in the BBC series than in the Hammer film.

Having given new life to one of the old Universal monsters, I next saw Cushing in a revival of another. The Mummy (1959) paired Cushing with Lee again, although the latter once again spent most of the film unrecognisable, swathed in the mummy’s bandages. I’m not a fan of mummies, they move too slow to be really scary and I just can’t seem to generate any sympathy for them.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974) was my first chance to see Lee in his most famous role. While not to most people's taste, I’ve always found Hammer’s two contemporary Dracula films, this and Dracula A.D. 1972, to be a lot of fun. Cushing plays Van Helsing and as with Victor Frankenstein, there’s still been no one to touch him in the part (whatever era he was playing it in).

That year also provided two other delights from Hammer. Dennis Wheatley's satanic novel was adapted in The Devil Rides Out (1968), giving Christopher Lee a chance to shine. Then Quatermass and the Pit (1967) added a touch of SF to the horror mix with aliens unearthed in London. A bit like The Thing, but in a heavily populated area. This was scary because, not only was it based on science rather than the supernatural (and therefore possible at least to a 14-year-old boy), but it was also set somewhere not that far from home.

The first double bill next season consisted of the classic Night of the Demon (1957) and The Ghoul (1975). Night of the Demon is a great film, but even back then, it was clear to me they made a mistake showing the monster at the start and subsequent viewings have only reinforced that feeling. Years later, I found out director Jacques Tourneur felt the same way but had to bow to studio pressure; unfortunately, this studio meddling resulted in a flawed classic.

The Ghoul is one of my guilty pleasures. It’s far from a great film but it does contain a superb performance from Peter Cushing, who had a knack for being excellent in even the most dire films. As with Night of the Demon, I found out some interesting information much later that helped to explain Cushing’s emotional performance. His wife had died shortly before filming and it was his own grief he channelled in order to portray Doctor Lawrence so effectively. The picture of Lawrence’s wife used in the film is, in fact, a photo of Cushing’s late wife, Helen.

Cushing returned two weeks later with the Amicus anthology Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965). As he only appeared in the linking sequences aboard the train, it was up to the other actors to hold my attention. Luckily, Christopher Lee was on hand as a snobbish art critic. I liked Lee a lot, but he was always third on my list of great horror stars of the '60s and '70s, after Cushing and Vincent Price.

It was another fortnight before the esteemed Mr Cushing again graced our television set with his presence; this time, with another of his Amicus anthologies, From Beyond The Grave (1973). It was preceded by Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf (1961).

Oliver Reed didn’t quite recapture the sadness and remorse of Lon Chaney Jr., but he gave it a damn good try and it was nice to be rooting for the monster again. Curse of the Werewolf was the first of three films that year to feature the hairy beasties.

In From Beyond the Grave, Cushing once more provided the links for the four tales. Also on hand were faces that were to become familiar over the coming years. Donald Pleasence would be another firm favorite in films like Halloween and Death Line, while David Warner would memorably lose his head in The Omen and play the important role of Henry in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. It also featured Ian Ogilvy who was already well known to me as Simon Templar in the Return of the Saint TV series, but I’d later see him in the horror classic Witchfinder General with Vincent Price.

I don’t recall seeing any of the films shown over the next couple of weeks, although my younger brother Andrew (now old enough to stay up as well) has fond memories of the giant bunny movie Night of the Lepus (1972).

Then came The Bat (1959), a murder mystery starring Vincent Price, and the Legend of the Werewolf (1974) that had Peter Cushing hunting the fanged killer. Apart from Price, there’s nothing much to recommend with The Bat, although it’s a perfectly serviceable murder mystery.

Werewolves must be cinema’s most tragic monsters and that’s true again in Legend of the Werewolf. Peter Cushing is a coroner, a latter day Gil Grissom, if you will, trying to solve a series of brutal murders. The trail leads to a memorable conclusion in the Parisian sewers. By this time, the werewolf was my monster of choice, and while this is no classic, it did make a lasting impression on me.

It was another fanged encounter that provided the next stand-out moment and the final film that year. As a werewolf nut, I’d watch even a bad movie so long as it featured one and The Beast Must Die (1974) definitely qualifies as a bad movie. A horror, blacksploitation, whodunit film, complete with mini werewolf break before the killer is revealed, it’s stupid but fun, particularly if you’re 15-years-old and eager for another furry fix.

Somewhere around this time, my older brother Tony became a big influence on my development as an aficionado of the macabre. He introduced me to the early works of writers like Stephen King and James Herbert, as well as taking me to see my first X film at the cinema. The X was the equivalent of the current U.K. 18 rating and no one below that age was supposed to be allowed in. Well, I was only 15, but on the large side, and things were a lot less strict back then so I didn’t have a problem. The film was Friday the 13th and it showed how far horror had progressed from the films I’d been watching on TV, particularly in the effects department.

You might think reading and watching more modern horror would have put me off the old classics, but when the "Horror Double Bill" started in July 1981, I was right there on the sofa ready.

That year, it was Val Lewton in the spotlight. I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945), Bedlam (1946), The Leopard Man (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), and The Body Snatcher (1945) were all shown over the coming weeks. These well-made films were a lot more adult in tone than the old Universal monster movies, but some of them at least had one thing in common, the presence of Boris Karloff (and in The Body Snatcher, Bela Lugosi, too).

The Lewton films were the first on the bill, but some of the second features have remained favourites as well. Peter Fonda and Warren Oates in an RV being chased by Satan worshipers in Race With The Devil (1975). What more could a young man ask for? How about George Romero’s The Crazies (1973)? Not Romero’s best, that would be one of his zombie films, but still good and a film that pointed the way to my future viewing.

That was the final year of classic pairings. It was a fitting time to end as well; shortly thereafter, we got our first VCR and that meant we’d no longer have to stay up to watch them. Yet part of the fun was staying up 'til the wee hours with my Dad and it just wouldn’t have been the same watching them on video the next day.

However, video was also a blessing for a horror fan, allowing me to see films that wouldn’t or couldn’t be shown on TV. But that, as they say, is a tale for another day…

British Horror Films has a complete list of the BBC2 horror double bills.

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About Ian Woolstencroft

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Congratulations! This article has been chosen as an editor’s pick this week!

  • STM

    The coming Ashes series should have roughly the same effect, then?