Five Classic Horror Movies from the Zealot

Sure, you could watch a classic horror movie this like Halloween, Psycho, or The Thing, but why not try some offbeat chillers to give you the holiday shivers? Here are 5 flicks guaranteed to raise the goosebumps.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

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This film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of a scientist’s experiments with mind and body transformations via a laboratory potion was castigated and an embarrassing flop on it’s initial release.
Many thought Spencer Tracy’s two character performance was hammy and hamfisted. He even thought it would ruin his career! It’s time for a rewrite. Let’s start with the production. It got the full luxe MGM treatment.There’s nothing like fog-blanketed Victorian London to set a moody tone and here you get those eerie cobblestoned passageways with a murderous cloaked madman flitting about the barred parks and side streets like a superhuman acrobat. Chillingly beautiful. And then the cast: Tracy brings a nuanced interpretation to the halved protagonist, more psychological than Freddie Kruger scary. Stevenson’s idea of Everyman being a receptacle of Good and Evil is ratcheted up another Freudian notch. The Evil is our id, sexual repression leads to beastly carnality. The good doctor is torn between his virginal fiance, Lana Turner as a dewey Victorian Barbie doll, and the lustier bad girl, Ingrid Bergman as a hotly-totsy barmaid garbling a dubious Cockney accent. Each woman toys with his inner urges (given how stunningly beautiful they’re filmed by lensman Joseph Ruttenberg, is it any wonder?) and each summons up that creepy ol’ Mr. Hyde in some disturbing shock moments. But if there’s one reason to see how legendary director Victor Fleming spins the yarn, it’s in the Jekyll-to-Hyde mutation sequences. The images that are careening thru Jekyll’s brain are so bizarro you wonder “How did this get past the Hayes office??” Need I say more than Tracy flogging two horses with a whip, one white, one black, who morph into galloping naked Turner and Bergman? If that doesn’t get you to watch this underrated classic I don’t know what will.

Cat People (1942)

cat-people-10-leopardCat People (1942) The best horror film of the ’40s. Kent Smith is a draughtsman who meets cute and weds a mysterious Serbian fashion designer, the kittenish Simone Simon. Things turn eerie when she tells him they can’t consummate the marriage because she’s cursed by an Old World spell wherein she’ll turn into a deadly panther if they do! Sounds hokey but it’s got scenes of real shock and terror that have been ripped off for decades. A masterly use of atmosphere, sound effects, and inky dark shadows to make you squirm.

Bedlam (1946)

29-bedlam-400What if you’re committed to an mental asylum and you keep insisting you’re sane…but no one believes you? That scary old premise is given a good turn in this literate and moody horror drama. Anna Lee is the crusading do-gooder who wants to reform the inhuman conditions of Bedlam, the infamous 18th century London madhouse. But the cruel director of the joint, lispy Boris Karloff, catches wind of her scheme and has her thrown in with all the ‘loonies’ through some political sleight of hand. How she plots to keep her wits about her and escape the spooky place is satisfying fun. And if the actress sounds familiar it’s because she went on to become the kindly matriarch Lila Quartermaine 35 years later on the soap “General Hospital”.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

creature-black-lagoonYes, it’s just a stuntman in a rubber lizard suit, but this atmospheric frightfest has more to offer than it’s (well-deserved) shocks. A team of paleontologists take a tramp steamer deep into the Amazon jungle searching for the remains of prehistoric ‘gill man’ and surprise, he still around to wreak havoc on their mission. Take it all at kitschy face value or look closer and see the real ‘creature’ here is the male ego of the two lead scientists (Richard Carlson, Richard Denning) who vie for the attention of their female cohort (Julie Adams). It’s monster as symbolic sexual frustration. When the big reptile ogles her in a famous underwater pas de deux, the chills are sexy AND spine tingling. 

The Conqueror Worm (1968)

witchfinder-general-18On the surface this looks like another one of those overought ’60s Edgar Allen Poe pictures where Vincent Price hammed it up amongst the pits and the pendulums. But look again, it’s a thoughtful meditation on pervasive corruption in religion and government. Here he’s Matthew Hopkins–a character loosely base on fact—a lawyer in 17th century England who’s a self appointed witch-hunter,  going from village to village executing anyone being suspected of witchcraft or satanism. For the right price. Bleak and unflinching, there are some gruesome scenes of torture and violence so be prepared. But Price is the very picture of smug malevolence in the name of religion, (he considered it his best performance), a baddie with haunting echoes of current events . . . Ted Cruz ring a bell? So it’s worth the time if you can stomach the horror.

—Ron Castillo

You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

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Secret Agent (1936)

secret-agent-1They’re well nigh on being 80 years old, but the films of Alfred Hitchcock’s British Period, his vastly entertaining oeuvre before he crossed over the pond to the cinematic heights of Hollywood, are looking as fresh and fascinating as ever. Case in point: Secret Agent, a very fine spy picture that boasts some haunting visual set pieces and a thoughtful study on the human toll of war and the causal need for state sanctioned murder. John Gielgud is a reluctant undercover British agent sent to Switzerland to find and kill a notorious German spy. He’s aided by a scene stealing Peter Lorre as an amoral devil doll sidekick. There’s no low ebb in this amped up performance; he’s a walking id leering at all the ladies or dead set on enemy homicide. The cooly beautiful Madeleine Carroll—the proto “Hitchcock Blonde”—is also on hand as the third spy assigned to the case. She’s Gielgud’s marital cover, slowly falling for her faux hubby, but also swatting away the advances of a charming American tourist, Robert “Marcus Welby” Young. The cast effortlessly handles the witty dialog and espionage derring-do, while Hitchcock cannily exploits the Teutonic locale. You get loads of Alps, mountain climbing, cute Dachshunds, and a sinister chocolate factory, but more importantly, a thoughtful meditation on the price of human life during wartime. Best of all, you can catch this gem on YouTube, watch it here.

—Ron Castillo

You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Laura Mars1Director Irvin Kirshner did something pretty special with The Eyes of Laura Mars. He captured the visceral pulsating atmosphere of the dying days of that immoral Me Decade, the 1970’s, and the cultural nexus where all that grime, grit, glitter, and glamour was in full swing, the scary and wonderful New York City that President Ford had written off with a tart ‘drop dead’, but was still a thriving hothouse of creativity and social taboo busting. It’s all wrapped in a so-so thriller, but the plot, pure Hollywood twaddle,  is beside the point. It’s all about the visual milieu, the dirty streets, downtown discos, and pre-mall-ified SoHo. Faye Dunaway is a high fashion photographer who’s work is a mixture of style and violence, sex and danger. Gorgeous models are coldly impassive in tableaux vivant with guns, blood, fire, wrecked cars, and barking Dobermans. It’s Helmut Newton gone even more gonzo. But just like that she starts suffering from psychic spells where she’s seeing through the point of view of a crazed killer’s eyes. Everyone around her is getting bumped off. Dunaway pulls off the balance of strong career gal and vulnerable victim admirably, and she probably never looked better on film. Those cheekbones and stiletto heeled long legs were made to play a couture ice goddess. An earnest Tommy Lee Jones shows up as the hunky detective assigned to crack the implausible case and to save (and bed) Dunaway. If you don’t see the identity of the murderer coming from a mile away you’re more blind than Laura Mars. Just revel in the time capsule nature of the film and take yourself into that exciting pre-scrubbed-up Manhattan of yesterday where the dangerous mixed with the chic, and the result was decadently stimulating.

—Ron Castillo

You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

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Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

Madding crowd 1The 1960’s It Girl, Julie Christie has a star turn in this very fine adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s proto-feminist 19th century novel. She’s a headstrong young woman who comes into a substantial inheritance, her wealthy uncle’s working farm. In good time she manages to beguile three different suitors all at once, making her the Goldilocks of the English countryside. One is too cold, the older and stuffy land baron next door (Peter Finch); one is too hot, the smoldering army sergeant (Terence Stamp) who, ahem, makes good use of his broadsword; and the last, the earthy farmhand (Alan Bates) may be just right. It’s all set in the achingly beautiful English countryside of Dorset and Wiltshire and the film feels as if it’s looking ahead to the style of the best ’70s cinema, it has a modern sensibility despite being a period costumer. Richard Rodney Bennett’s score is a big plus too.

—Ron Castillo

You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

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The Celluloid Zealot: Blow Out (1981)

BlowOut3Blow Out remains a very fine political thriller that looks better and better with each passing year. Director Brian DePalma deftly weaves together a tight plot that references the Kennedy assassination, the Chappaquiddick scandal, and the Watergate coverup. John Travolta is a sound man for cheap grind house slasher pictures. One night he’s recording sound effects and witnesses a car careen off a bridge into a river. The two passengers are a governor making a bid for the White House, and his ‘date’, Nancy Allen. Travolta to the rescue; the politician dies and she lives. That’s just the beginning of the twisty plot as the two stars, both never better, find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy coverup because they’re The Couple Who Knew Too Much. DePalma has such a command of the whiz bang cinema toys of split screens, cross-cutting, sound effects, deep focus, etc, that each tense set piece will make you giddy. As a wry comment on the proceedings expert cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond bathes the whole production in inky blacks highlighted with reds, whites, and blues, an idea that sounds hokey but works in spades. Add Pino Dinaggio’s heartbreaking and lush score and you’ve got a winner all around. Excellent movie craft becomes high art.

—Ron Castillo
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You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

The Celluloid Zealot: Let’s Make Love (1960)

Let’s Make Love (1960)

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Let’s Make Love was to be Marilyn Monroe’s penultimate movie, a witty musical rom-com that showed she could bring a modicum of acting ability to a role instead of just being a magnetic on-screen “presence.” The director here, the old master George Cukor, who had a reputation for skillful direction of female leading ladies, would say afterward, “. . . she couldn’t sustain scenes. She’d do three lines and then forget the rest, she’d do another line and then forget everything again. You had to shoot it piecemeal. But curiously enough, when you strung it all together, it was complete. She never could do the same thing twice, but, as with all the true movie queens, there was an excitement about her.” If the performance was created with the magic of editing, it doesn’t show, Monroe is smart, touching, and of course, unabashedly sexy. She’s a struggling off-off-Broadway actress rehearsing a small topical review in a Greenwich Village theatre-in-the-round. One of the notable celebs the show is poking fun at is a headline making billionaire playboy (Yves Montand). He deigns to travel downtown to see for himself if he should get litigious with this pipsqueak show and he gets mistaken for a neophyte actor auditioning for the piece. He falls for Monroe who doesn’t know his real identity. Yes, it’s a gimcrack plot device but isn’t that the price of entry for most musicals anyway? What makes it work is Monroe’s undeniable star quality; when she’s in the frame you look at nothing else. Every leading male star at the time turned down this picture because of her infamous behind the scenes shenanigans, so props to Montand for giving a funny, nuanced performance that holds its own against her mega-watt charisma. You really feel his struggle to find a partner who doesn’t love him for his bank account alone. There are some nifty musical numbers supplied by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, mostly for Monroe and her show-within-a-show co-star, Frankie Vaughn, who’s like a strapping Tony Bennett clone. And credit goes to Cukor for maintaining the right smart tone for the whole piece, not letting it veer into corny schtick and to coax the goods out of his difficult star. Somehow he got everything he needed to ‘string it all together’ beautifully.

—Ron Castillo

You can read more of Ron’s choice picks, penchants, and caprices at The Celluloid Zealot

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Yo, Marilyn, You’re on Netflix!

Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

Don't Bother to Knock 4Marilyn Monroe as a mentally deranged babysitter? Yup. And it’s worth a looksee, if only to prove that La Monroe could actually ACT. It’s the darkside of her fragile wounded sparrow persona. A noir with an insular setting, a big city hotel, has Richard Widmark in a relaxed performance as a fellow guest who meets the star for a possible hookup…then things go very, very wrong. A witty script with some funny lines amongst a few still chilling moments of sustained suspense.
—Ron Castillo 

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Seven Year Itch 1The movie that shot Marilyn Monroe into the pop icon stratosphere. George Axelrod’s Broadway play centered on an Everyman (Tom Ewell) in the buttoned-down ’50s who has daydreams of an extramarital affair with his nubile upstairs neighbor. In Billy Wilder’s movie, it’s all about “The Girl,” as MM is simply billed. She OWNS any frame she’s in…and the movie lags when she’s not around. But when she is, oh my, it’s sensory overload. See it and understand what having the “it” factor is all about.
—Ron Castillo