Since it’s creeping, day by day and night by night, toward Halloween, it’s time to consider the movies. I’m not talking “Mary Poppins” either (although dancing with penguins can be pretty scary). No, I’m talking of the Great Horror Movies of the Century. Some of the most blood-curdling scenes on film were written by gifted authors, directed by geniuses, acted by theater legends and perfect excuses to wrap your arms around your sweetheart and pretend you were brave and protective. I did this, and all the while, missing key dialogue and scenes. Try watching Lon Chaney through narrow slits of nearly closed eyes? Try turning away from some demonic brain surgery scene…your girlfriend will think something is wrong with her left ear or a strange woman on your left will call the usher because you’re staring at her right ear. It’s not easy.
I’m not a screenwriter. I think we know that. But I love the visual quality of films and the style of writing. I think this comes from listening to the radio when I was a child. Shows like “Inner Sanctum” and “The Shadow” forced me to imagine the faces and scenery. With movies, you’re given everything. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Classic images constructed by Hollywood are like perfect novels…not a word could be changed…not an image could be different. For example: Lon Chaney getting the mask ripped from his face in “Phantom of the Opera”, or Elsa Lanchester’s jerky head as the “Bride of Frankenstein”. Or, perhaps one of my all-time favorites, when Bela Lugosi stands on the stairs of his castle and, after hearing the wolves, says: “Listen to them-the children of the night. What music they make!”
Let’s get to the point. You need great scenery, deep and meaningful dialogue, professional acting, and a strong plot. For my money, only a handful of movies fulfill those stringent requirements. I’m thinking of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (the original, of course), “Freaks”, “The Beast of Yucca Flats” and, of course, the All-Time Greatest Horror ever put on celluloid: “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”
Directed by the legendary genius, Ed Wood, it is a true masterpiece by any standards. Ed Wood knew how to write and direct a film that will be a classic for all time. “Plan 9” was filmed in and around Hollywood. It was released in 1959. The running time is 79 minutes. And it had a staggering budget of $60,000. Wood also had a major movie star on his contract, Bela Lugosi. Sadly, Lugosi was, at the time, a drug addict. Legend has it that Wood would drive Lugosi around L.A. to find drug dealers willing to supply them with enough morphine to get Lugosi through the next few days shooting schedule.
Then a slight problem arose. Bela Lugosi died only a few days into the filming. To Ed Wood, that presented no big problem. He simply found some out-of-work actor to ‘stand-in’ for Lugosi. Recognition problems? No way. The actor simply held up a cape (Dracula fashion) and hid his face. Brilliant!
The scenery (and props) were also something to behold. If you watch the tombstones as the main characters walk through the cemetery at night, some of them flap back and forth. Who needs marble when cardboard will work just as well?
The ‘flying saucer’ at the beginning of the film resembles a garbage can lid. It probably was.
But the writing was extraordinary. And I mean that literally.
Consider the following speech given by Criswell at the very beginning:
Criswell: Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown… the mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you, the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony, of the miserable souls, who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places. My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?
Now that’s writing.
Other noteworthy dialogue includes:
Criswell: At the funeral of the old man, unknown to his mourners, his DEAD WIFE was watching!
Lieutenant John Harper: It was a saucer.
Policeman: A flying saucer?
Air Force Captain: Visits? That would indicate visitors.
As you can read, the dialogue left much to the imagination…like great film dialogue should attempt. There’s nothing left for the imagination with a toss-off quote like, say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” But that’s another movie…
Something else should be mentioned here. One of the main characters, played by an ex-professional wrestler, Tor Johnson, makes a classic return from his grave. That face, that image was to become the all-time best-selling Halloween mask in history. [I can not confirm this fact…it was something I read years ago. I would think that the more recent images like “Freddie”, the “Halloween” monster and the “Scream” figure are probably more popular now.]
This is the make-up artists model:
This is the actor, Tor Johnson:
So, get the film on Netflix. Sit back and enjoy.
Finally, I want to add that I first saw the film in the mid-1980’s while living in Norwalk, CT. It was being shown at a local movie theater as part of the “Golden Turkey” Awards. The ‘worst films ever made’. I have to say, I don’t agree. The real horror movies are those that exploit women, children, gays and glorify violence and war. Nothing is glorious in those things. And, I can’t help but feel that the real ‘horror’ of this movie was all behind the camera. Ed Wood was gay. That must have been a nightmare in itself in Hollywood in the late 1950’s. And, the sorrow I felt for Bela Lugosi, once a great actor, seeing him sinking so low in his personal addictions that he agreed to make this film to just get through another day. Now that’s real terror. That’s real scary. I poked fun at this movie in this post, but I don’t laugh so loud now at the inane dialogue or fake tombstones. I feel sorrow for the lives being played out…where I can’t see them. Off camera, on dirty street corners and in lonely hotel rooms, when the actors go home to whatever sad lives they had.
Remember the saying: “For all the bright lights on Broadway, there are a thousand broken hearts.”?
These days, for every Brad Pitt, there’s ten thousand waitresses, waiters, barristers and really lonely people who are miles away from their farm in Ohio and their worried parents.