I have a dilemma.
There are just no good movies being made today.
Sure, I could pick out maybe one or two a year that are enjoyable. Movies that are well produced, cast, directed, written, or acted. But more and more, I find that good films are hard to find.
Because of this film drought, I’ve been working my way through Hammer Films’s six Frankenstein movies that feature Peter Cushing. (Hammer made one other — “The Horror of Frankenstein” (1970), a remake of “Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), starring Ralph Bates in the role of Victor Frankenstein instead of Cushing.) And you know what? They’re amazing.
Now, I don’t just say that because I’m obsessed with Peter Cushing, or because I love Hammer Films. For me, there’s just always been something about these old movies that today’s films sorely lack. I keep thinking, “The oldies are just so much fun!” Hammer and Amicus Productions were the kings of horror from the late ’50s into the mid ’70s, and even in the midst of all the scares, blood, gore, and violence, the films still ooze delicious visuals and tremendous fun. And that’s not just thanks to Technicolor!
When I want to see a good movie, I KNOW that I can put on nearly any film from that twenty-year period and I’m going to enjoy it. This is true for most genres, I think, but it’s especially true for horror. And since I’ve been bingeing on Cushing’s delectably diabolical doctor lately, it seems like the perfect subject to examine.
So what do these old horror films have that today’s movies don’t? Or at the very least, what is it that makes them so different? I have an idea.
Most Frankenstein stories have the same basic premise: Doctor with a God complex creates monster. Monster is afraid and doctor loses control of monster. Monster escapes and wreaks havoc on the countryside. Doctor chases monster, townspeople chase doctor, monster and doctor are destroyed. Later to be discovered alive and well and living in Carlsbruck under the name Dr. Stein!
In any horror film, you have a monster — either man-made (Frankenstein), alien, or man himself (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees) who skulks around, terrorizing people. By comparison, Hammer films are no more modest when it comes to body count and gore as many modern films. But when it’s Hammer, why can I sit down and enjoy 90 minutes of scares and killing, but a modern horror or slasher flick leaves me feeling like I just got dumped after someone ran over my puppy?
I think the key is that in the old films, the monster possesses very little malice or hatred. Yes, he often develops strong resentment for his creator, but this is the result of an unfamiliar environment and straight-up fear. When he escapes the doctor’s laboratory, he’s not killing because it feels good. Much like in the original “Frankenstein” (1930) when the monster throws the little girl in the lake, unintentionally drowning her, the violence is almost always in response to pain, fear, or is truly an accident. The monster is not inherently evil. He is simply reacting in the most basic human way.
But today’s horror films? The monsters are PURE evil. Lunatics who hate women go around slicing them up. Guys who get off on control and torture, terrorize little children. There is zero innocence in them. It’s a lot harder to give a psychopath a pass for his heinous, unprovoked crimes than it is a monster who was pieced together in a laboratory, and like any newborn coming into this strange new world, is afraid and lonely. Today’s monsters thrive on fear. It’s what allows them to live. Whereas the monsters of yesterday are desperately trying to escape from that fear. And usually end up losing their lives because of it.
Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee prove that you CAN have fun while being scared. And their classic films are a testament to a time when good always triumphed over evil, and where that evil always possessed at least a tiny shred of humanity. That’s what’s important. No matter how small that shred was, it was enough to make us sympathetic to the baddest of the bad.
I just finished “The Evil of Frankenstein” (1964), and now have three films left to go in the series. While I have yet to discover all the particulars of these new stories, there’s one thing I already know for sure: As the castle burns and the credits roll, I’ll be smiling from ear to ear, eagerly anticipating the next installment. Because unlike the umpteenth unholy resurrection of Michael Myers, the 4th, 5th, or 6th revival of Peter Cushing’s Fran-ken-sh-tein is just what the mad doctor ordered.