Nobody is born loving classic films. Live long enough, of course, and the movies that came out when you were born will become classics. (The French Connection, Dirty Harry, and A Clockwork Orange all attest to that for me.) But the films of the 1950s, 40s, 30s, 20s? The foundational texts of the art form? Sadly, for all their influence on our culture, we’re no longer surrounded by them. Somebody – or something – has to point us towards them, sit us down and make us watch them, to realize how potent they still are.
When I was a child, and autumn came round, the local PBS station would schedule the Universal horror movies of the 1930s and 40s every Saturday , one classic monster per night. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, all the beloved icons of Halloween. And every Halloween night, this programming would culminate in an all night airing of every Universal monster in their catalogue. Inevitably, it would start off with Todd Browning’s 1931 Dracula, then start the sequence of Frankenstein films, going through to House of Frankenstein. (Aggravatingly, they’d always skip Ghost of Frankenstein, leaving some plot holes by the time Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man aired, though by then it was about two in the morning and most viewers weren’t feeling very analytical.) Some of the loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptations would get thrown in to take the marathon to the pre-dawn hours; usually Murders in the Rue Morgue or The Raven, but occasionally we’d get The Black Cat if the folks at PBS were feeling particularly mischievous. (Seriously, go watch The Black Cat – it’s one of the most deranged movies ever made.)
This shouldn’t seem like the most foreign of concepts; it’s the precursor to the horror marathons that are on AMC or Turner Classic Movies even as you’re reading this. Heck, there’s a marathon of some sort every weekend on basic cable nowadays. But at the time, this was the only way we had to see these films. If you were a horror crazed tyke like I was, you needed to stay up as late as humanly possible to absorb as much of this as you could.
But it wasn’t just the horror monsters of yesteryear I was absorbing every Halloween. It was the vocabulary of classic film itself. The appreciation of black and white cinematography, and the extraordinary variety of effects to which it could be used. The evolution of narrative techniques. The use of imagery as a means of storytelling (even as a child, I knew that James Whale, director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, was in a class by himself). The simple fact that the movies I enjoyed had a history, and were part of a continuum, and that continuum stretched through the classic literature these movies were based on, through the history of storytelling itself.
I love Halloween. None of its phantoms and bugbears scare me as they did when I was a child (and they don’t come close to the terrors of real life), but they hold a special place in my heart nonetheless. To heck with cineastes and artistes and connoisseurs of high culture – I fell in love with the classics because of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Of course, that’s led to my embrace of a career with little pay and no security, so perhaps this really is the scariest time of the year.