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Top 7 Moments in Cinema Horror History I Wish I Had Been There to See

A scene from Dracula (1931), in which Renfield (Dwight Frye) is revealed in the hold of the Demeter.

Okay, so what does that mean? “Been there to see?” It means that I wish I could have been there, in a cinema, to see it when it first was shown. Because we soon forget why these moments are significant. If we look at Lon Chaney Sr.‘s makeup stylings today…we don’t react like we would have almost a century ago. We’re used to this kind of stuff. But back then, remember, cinema was new. No one had ever seen anything like it before. To have witnessed the birth and adolescent years of cinema horror first hand, that would be something.

I would almost want to be there twice. Once to see the thing with virgin eyes like the audiences then were, and once with what I know now, just for academic purposes. It’s like when I saw The Exorcist in a cinema full of college kids a few years back. I was able to be detached enough from the picture to appreciate how they had been talkative up until the two priests started ascending the stairs…then you could hear a freakin’ pin drop.

I really, really wish I had been there for these.

7. Mad Renfield Revealed (1931).

I’ve said this before, but Lugosi‘s Dracula doesn’t creep me out. Oh sure, I love the character a lot, and can recite most of his dialogue when I watch the film, but he just doesn’t frighten me. I don’t know how audiences back then would have reacted, because he looked fairly normal and didn’t, you know, transform on screen. He lacked the shock value in his appearance. But what I think would have been creepy as shit then, because it’s still creepy as shit now, is Dwight Frye‘s Renfield. That shot of him looking up from the ship’s hold at his “rescuers.” That is freaking creepy. The scene where the maid faints and he crawls over to her like a predatory beast…you know, that’s never really addressed again, is it? But he was magnificent.

My favorite DVD release of the original Dracula is the Legacy Collection. It’s missing the second commentary, but it does have all the other Dracula films as well as the first one. So it’s a great buy. You can snag it here.

6. Karloff’s Mummy Wakes Up (1932).

It was this moment that really got me started thinking about what it must have been like to sit in the cinema and watch the Mummy open its eyes. Karloff is there, full-on makeup, dead. You know he’s going to be creepy because you’ve recently seen him as Frankenstein’s Monster (see below). But when he comes back to life and opens his eyes, begins to move…I would think most 1931 moviegoers would have pissed themselves.

Again, for my favorite release of this on home video: it’s the Legacy Collection. You can snag it for yourself here.

5. Karloff’s Monster Revealed (1931).

When watching the commentary from Universal’s Legacy Collection, they mentioned how Karloff’s makeup had been kept a secret until the film’s release. And mention is made by the film historian, something to the effect of, “Remember, for us it’s old hat–we think of Frankenstein’s Monster, we think of Karloff in makeup, but in 1931…this was all new.” And remember, this before Karloff was a known quantity, too. So you don’t even get the “Boris Karloff is the monster, so he’s going to freak us out” thing. No, the Monster is heard shuffling down the corridor, then he opens the door, backs into the room, and is then revealed. Would have been amazing.

The aforementioned Legacy Collection release is still the best release of this. You can snag it here.

4. Psycho (1960).

I’ve said this countless times as well: people don’t understand how groundbreaking this film was when it hit. Not just because of the shower scene, not just because of the twist ending, but to my knowledge (which is not vast, I’m sad to say), this is the first major film in which a known star was given top billing, then killed off very quickly and very surprisingly, leaving us with the killer as the main character. That’s the problem with a lot of Hitchcock–he paved the way for so much, that people watch his stuff and say, “Huh. I’ve seen that done already.” Yes, but Hitch did it first.

Update: The Blu-Ray release is due on October 19, 2010 (in the future as I write this), and it’s actually cheaper than the Legacy Collection release and appears to share features. So here you go.

3. A William Castle Production (1959).

This ranks so high because, while we can watch the films on DVD, we can’t get the full-on in-the-cinema show that Castle put on. While any of his films would be cool, I’m thinking specifically of the original House on Haunted Hill with the skeleton in the cinema or more importantly, The Tingler, where some of the seats were wired up to deliver “buzzing” type shocks to audience member when the creature is supposedly loose in the cinema. I understand somebody staged a “revival” of the The Tingler included the gizmos under the seats. That would have been awesome to get in on.

The Tingler is available on DVD from Amazon.

2. The Phantom Revealed (1925).

As mentioned, Chaney specialized in creating makeup effects that–well, let’s face it, his Phantom is still today quite grotesque. And a response of “grotesque” in 2007 equals “OMGWTF” in 1925 terms. So when Christine goes up and removes his mask, it must have scared the absolute crap out of the audience. This is an audience who would have probably known Chaney as Quasimodo, but Quasimodo certainly doesn’t prepare you for that.

The best presentation of this is the Milestone Edition from Image. You can get it on DVD here.

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968). I just want to sit in an audience back then and watch this with them for the first time. Look at how we’ve escalated zombies now, where they have to be goddamn Olympic sprinters to be scary. But back then, this film (is still amazing), but it would have been amazing to see. I’ve written before about how Romero builds the shocks on top of each other until the climax, sort of lowering you into the warm water slowly to get you used to it. I would just want to see how the first audiences to see this film, because this was the equivalent of a cinematic grenade going off. There had been horror movies, but nothing quite like it on the level of gore and terror. Daughter eats her dead father, daughter kills her mother, brother drags sister to her death, you name it.

Of course what concerns me (and maybe this just means I’m getting old) is that I look at stuff like Hostel and I think it’s, well, torture porn. Garbage. But of course, that’s what some critics thought of Night when it first opened. Hell, the scene where Frankenstein’s monster throws the girl in the lake was censored for its re-release and not restored until Universal restored the films most recently. Notice I didn’t say “Frankenstein’s Monster holds the girl kicking and screaming underwater until she stops moving.” He just throws her in the lake. And that was considered too much.

I wonder what people are going to think thirty, forty years from now when the look back on 28 Days Later. Will they say, “Huh. Boring.” And if so, what the hell are they going to find terrifying?


  • Hey, I just stumbled upon your cool blog. William Castle is in some pretty good company. So much so, he’s back from the grave and posting on Facebook. I took the liberty of sending along the link.

    I had the great pleasure to be in New York City back in September as alot of Castle’s ballyhoo was lovingly recreated and had a blast in a half.