Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy and their ilk from a day long gone by, but with an imagination and style that appears will endure forever, remain firm in the culture consciousness. How amazed I was a month or so ago to walk into a store in downtown Nashville and find a 20-something girl with a sprawling, unusually colorful tattoo portrait of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein from 1931 taking up a good portion of her forearm. We have been trained to call these movies, populated by such characters, "horror movies". But when was the last time you were actually horrified by one?
These are not horror movies that are beloved by the fans, and these movies are not terror movies, a perhaps much more accurate phrase coined by Boris Karloff who played Frankenstein's Monster and innumerable other parts in that genre. So if they are not those things, then what are they?
Let me coin my own term for these excursions into the visually flamboyant macabre: "Gothic Fantasies".
Even as a child of 8 or 9, in fuzzy images coming over the TV, broadcast out of New York City (cable had not been invented, let alone the internet), when they came out of the darkness, I was not scared by these movies. Like all my friends, I thought they were fascinating. No one hid their eyes.
This was a different time when the effect of such movies could be much more frightening. Outside the windows even in the early evening from Autumn until the Spring all was darkness, and the very presence of the night could be a frightening thing and it did frighten humankind for most of recorded history, as recorded history makes clear.
In a time with no security cameras and the like, when the TV stations blinked off in the late of night and early hours, one after another, of the few that were broadcast, leaving behind static test patterns and the whine of the dead signal, even in a home with sleeping parents and siblings, it was more than possible for a kid to feel terrifyingly alone. When will a face show itself at the window? That could be frightening. But to many of us, probably a majority if social media is any indication, such characters as Frankenstein and his pals were old friends. They were so impossible and yet so magnificently realized that what kid with half a heart and an optimistic imagination would not love them? And millions of "monster kids" from that day to today still do.
Gothic Fantasies, filled with characters who invariably had their sympathetic aspects; Frankenstein's Monster was plainly played initially for pathos as much as alarm; the Wolfman was a sad, cursed character who never deserved his fate; the Mummy initially only wanted to be reunited with his 2,000-year-old love. Perhaps only cold-blood Dracula was truly the only evil one of the bunch, and yet he was just an Hungarian in a tuxedo and a cape. Still, we loved them all. These were not horror movies. The were and are "Gothic Fantasies".
Today's horror movies tend to be truly horrific and unfortunately made not to entertain, but to disturb, and this is probably a pretty bad recipe for a future society. And their initial entrance onto the stage in the late 1980's may explain a lot about today. But even those are tame compared to true horror movies.
True horror movies are now happening around us, and we call them the "Nightly News"; in Chicago, last weekend alone, there were 130 riot shootings that left 14 dead including some kids, all for an illogical explosive reaction to a single sick cop murdering a single criminal suspect, and so, the apparent logic goes, cities must burn and countless innocent must die while the power brokers in shadowy, mafia-like dens of control manipulate thoughtless and pawn-like foot-soldiers who mindlessly put themselves in harm's way while the power brokers themselves, as is always the case with troublemakers, who puppet the pawns, remain safe in their darkened dens of command. A true horror movie is the grainy 16mm film of the 1960's showing naked Asian kids in Vietnam running while screaming in their deaths, on-fire from napalm. A horror movie is the Islamic terrorist video of the beheading of Jewish Nick Berg strangling in agony on his own blood while the man with the knife pulled hard to separate Berg's screaming head from his spinal cord. I made the mistake of watching that myself, and each exposure shears away a thin slice of your soul. Those are horror movies. A true horror movie is the video of the remains of MS-13 victims, their scattered body parts desecrated with vulgar graffiti. A true horror movie is the greatest nation on earth, which birthed those great, beloved, imaginative silver screen characters of old, being torn to pieces so fast and so violently that the rest of society remains inactive from their own confusion; desperately trying to figure out the simple answer to a basic question: are those criminals morally and ethically justified in killing the innocent and destroying a nation because they have been brainwashed into believing that they're doing good?
Those old classic movies, by contrast, burned bright in their silver screen style and then vanished because studio executives confused the incorrect concept of a fickle audience whose tastes had changed with the reality that the studios just weren't making those movies very well, anymore, toward the end. The audience hadn't gotten bored, the studio executives had gotten bored, as would later be the case at CBS television in the mid-1960's, which was still riding high with several rural comedies; the first, The Beverly Hillbillies, still in third place. The then-new CBS management decided it was beneath the Network's artistic dignity to continue to be successful, so they scrapped all those shows and in so doing sent the CBS Television Network into a decade-long tailspin into the bottom of the network ratings.
But, maybe, if sanity rules, our old friends from the silver screen can come back, and come back the way they were. People would accept a Frankenstein movie in black and white today if done with real style. Absolutely. Especially if the theater experience was in 3D.
So thank God for Bela and Boris, Pierce and Whale, of Rains and Lon and all the rest flickering back at us from black and white works of genius of which none of us can or will ever tire. These are not horror movies, they're momentary, welcome and necessary escapes from true horror movies.
They're Gothic Fantasies, a significant foundation of our motion picture heritage, and we can never let them vanish into extinction from fads, assumptions or irrational, destructive violence.