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Archive for October, 2010

Like many of my generation, the first time I saw Deborah Kerr was in The King and I. And, also like many of my generation, I fell in love with her. Part of the appeal (both suggested and reinforced by the film’s sharp focus on cultural, class, and sexual boundaries) was the distinct feeling that I was not supposed to fall in love with her. Which, of course, only made the whole idea even more irresistible.

Kerr did not seem young to me. (Anyone older than twelve or thirteen seemed “old” to me at the time.) She reminded me of one of my teachers at school, the kind you don’t notice you have a crush on until it’s too late. Although she was, in fact, breathtakingly beautiful, I did not think of her as being especially pretty. I realize now it was because she did not act like a woman who is beautiful, or who wants the world to know she is beautiful, because, quite simply, her beauty was beside the point.

I wasn’t really aware of Kerr again until ten years or more later when some college friends and I decided to tune in to a late movie because the TV guide said it was a ghost story and that it was very good.

The Innocents contains a number of memorable frightening images. Quint’s face drifting closer and closer to the window, his ghostly breath frosting the glass. Miss Jessup standing on the far side of the lake, her face a hollow blur, drenched to the bone in her long black dress.

But the most frightening image in the film—to me, anyway—will always be the look on Deborah Kerr’s face.

A good actor knows that you never play drunk. Instead, you play someone who’s trying not to act drunk. Likewise, Kerr never played terror—she played a human being trying, desperately, not to give in to terror.

Anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety understands that it has two components. First, you are afraid of the thing that initially inspires the fear—then, you are afraid of the fear, afraid of losing control. Kerr communicated that experience better than almost any actor on film. Which is why her performances are capable of inspiring such immediate and empathetic terror in the viewer.

Fear is viral. And it spreads more quickly in confined spaces. In Black Narcissus, Kerr plays a nun stationed in a remote Himalayan outpost trying desperately to protect the nuns in her charge from the faceless dread that’s spreading among them. It’s a losing battle, compounded by the fact that Kerr’s character herself has also contracted the same nameless terror.

Of course, Kerr was not merely known for playing damsels in psychological and spiritual distress—she played any number of “strong women” during her career. But in Kerr’s portrayals, the strength of character feels both “natural” and like an effort. You somehow never lose the sense that Kerr’s characters, no matter how in (or out) of control they may seem, are fighting a battle against overwhelming forces both outside and inside themselves.

Other actors who are famous for their on screen portrayals of “strong women” (Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck) toss out moments of fragility for contrast and, one feels, to demonstrate their range as performers. With Kerr, the “fragility” is a given, a constant undercurrent, so that it no longer comes across as “fragility”, but is simply humanity.

The lesson that creators of horror fiction (both onscreen and off) can learn from Kerr’s performances is this—that it’s not enough to produce single moments of shock and terror. To ring true and cut to the heart, you must show a gradual and inexorable decline, the erosive power of fear. And, whatever the outcome, a little bravery in the struggle.

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On Friday nights when I was ten years old, I’d borrow my parents’ black, heavy Big Ben alarm clock, set it for 5:25 AM and stuff it under my pillow. Usually, the anticipation alone was enough to wake me and I’d push the off-button before it had a chance to ring. Then I’d shuffle down the hall in the dark and into the family room where I’d kneel down on the faded Persian carpet, pull the power button on the big Zenith TV and listen to the pop and sizzle as the forces inside the picture tube gathered themselves.

To this day I wonder who was the person at our local TV station who decided that 5:30 AM on Saturday was the perfect time to show every horror movie from the Universal Studios vault. The ungodly hour and the darkness contributed to my vague feeling that there was something subversive, almost indecent about these films. It did not occur to me that they’d been ghettoized, that these movies were (at the time) considered not classics, but garbage, filler between fishing shows and the morning news. But to me, the hour was holy.

Laying on that scratchy old living room rug in the pre-dawn dark, I saw for the first time not only classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman and The Mummy, but also lesser-known treasures like The Black Cat, The Raven, The Body Snatchers, The Son of Dracula, The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Haunted Strangler, White Zombie.

Some of the films they showed us were worn thin as Egyptian papyrus, and the light threatened to burn right through them. The ancient, noisy soundtracks gave new meaning to the phrase “thunderous silence”—when the camera panned slowly through a castle’s empty corridors or when Lugosi crept across a victim’s bedroom, the silence literally roared like blood rushing through my skull.

The visual vocabulary of those movies etched itself into my brain—the wild and ragged black and white skies, the flat staging that had the angular beauty of hieroglyphics, the mannered performances that took on the slow and formal grace of kabuki theater.

It’s useless to argue that the old monster movies of the thirties and forties are more frightening than contemporary horror films with their realistic gore and computer-generated shocks. What they are is more beautiful. The crumbling castles, the forbidding forests thick with fog, the horse-drawn carriages and villagers in their bonnets and lederhosen all have more in common with the world of fairy tales than with the brutal realities of violence and terror.

When did I first become interested in these movies? Who told me they were worth seeing? What was it that first got me out of bed and in front of the TV at that ungodly hour?

I had a friend, Chuck Scoggins who lived, like all of my friends, within easy walking distance of my parents’ house. Chuck had a gun his father had made for him, a German Luger he’d carved out of plywood with a jigsaw in his woodworking shop. It was flat and one-dimensional, but within those limits it was as perfect a replica of a Luger as any piece of plywood could be, and was a thing of beauty that I coveted.

Another of Chuck’s possessions that had a different but equally powerful effect on me was a record with a garish blood-red cover featuring the image of the Frankenstein monster on the left and Dracula on the right. Although I had not yet seen the movies, I recognized the characters from Halloween costumes and lunch boxes. The images were common, familiar as Santa Claus. Chuck showed me the record but would not play it for me until he was sure his mother could not hear it. I think he enjoyed withholding it from me until the right moment.

The right moment came one afternoon when Chuck’s mother had gone out shopping and we were left alone in the huge rec-room that held all his toys and games in crazy, teetering piles. I watched Chuck slip the disc out of the worn cardboard cover, set it on the spinning turntable, then slowly lower the needle into the groove.

The first sound to come out of the speakers was not the rumble of thunder or evil laughter or a creaking door—it was the clattering of a typewriter. The narrator was a writer, a mortal man who had gone too far and seen too much and was now on a mission to communicate to all of us what he’d seen before it was too late. The writer’s voice  told us that he was marked for death by Count Dracula whose tomb he had discovered and whose secrets he was now revealing to us at the cost of his own life.

The rest of that side was the voice of Count Dracula, an impeccable Lugosi impression by the same actor who did the voice of the writer and the voice of the Frankenstein monster on the other side. The actor, Gabriel Dell, had been one of the original Dead End kids, the tall, handsome one who usually stood on the sidelines looking intense and flicking his long oily hair out of his eyes. The makers of the record did not print a photo of the actor on the back of the record sleeve, so when I tried to picture the real person whose voice I was hearing, there was only a blank, a darkness, and out of that darkness, pictures came.

The reason that Chuck’s mother did not want her son listening to this record was a scene where Dracula approaches a young girl on the streets of London, hypnotizes her and then drinks her blood. We did not get to hear the voice of the girl, only the sound of her footsteps, and a few light rustlings that may have been her clothing as she moved. Dracula’s voice whispers intimately close to the microphone, trembling with lust, Her throat….so soft…so warm…so full of life… Then the unmistakable sound of human teeth crunching through some kind of soft, resistant substance, and the owner of those teeth softly slurping some kind of liquid suddenly rising into his mouth.

I don’t know how many times we listened to that scene, or how many times Chuck must have listened to it in private, but I do remember that there were numerous scratches right at that place that crackled like static electricity, and we had to strain to hear those other sounds underneath.

One afternoon Chuck’s mother took the record out into their back yard and snapped it in two pieces, then four, like a communion wafer. I never saw the pieces of broken vinyl, but from the genuine sorrow on Chuck’s face I knew it was true and I never mentioned it again.

By the time I got my own copy of the record, the blood-sucking scene had already lost most of its charge for me. What had not worn off was the power of Dracula’s presence, the sense of utter self-confidence, of complete mastery and fearlessness. Wolves came when he called and bowed down at his feet, zombies and ghouls swarmed up from hell at his bidding, ready to kill for him. Dracula was at the top of the supernatural food chain and had no one and nothing to fear on this side of the grave or on the other.

Meanwhile, I had plenty to fear from the bigger boys at school who shoved me to the ground and pinned me down, laughing at my struggles until they grew bored. But in my dreams it was different. In my dreams, I did not make them gaze into my ring. I didn’t stalk them like a panther stalking a gazelle, never sank my teeth into their necks. In my dreams, the ones I had in my sleep and the ones I had wide awake, it was the sound of my voice alone that conquered my enemies, the first words Lugosi says when he appears onscreen. I am Dracula. The power of that voice, the power of those three words and what they meant was mine in the moment it took me to say them, and I said them as often as I dared, practicing, until it felt true.

As much as I’d loved Lugosi’s voice, there was something about Karloff’s that I loved even more. It was a rich British accent with upper-class patrician overtones, each syllable measured out precisely like spoonfuls of tea, but with rougher, lower-class undertones that I believed those carefully measured pronunciations were a way of keeping under control. There was also a very slight lisp, which may have been one more reason for those painstaking pronunciations. I tried to imitate Karloff’s voice and found, oddly, that what helped was putting the tip of my tongue between my teeth and my lower lip on the left side.

It wasn’t until I had my own children that Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein made me weep. Karloff first appears onscreen, sitting alone in a darkened tower room, still as a wax figure. His creator slowly raises the covering of a skylight high above, allowing beams of sunlight to touch the floor at his feet. He stirs, stands, stiffly, shuffles forward uncertainly, lifting his face toward the light, then slowly raises his arms over his head and begins to make little fluttering motions with his fingers, trying to catch the beams of sunlight as if they’re butterflies. When he realizes he can’t touch the light, can’t have it, he begins to whimper and whine, his hands moving more and more frantically. His creators then shut the window above, taking the light away, and he lowers his hands, then his head, then shuffles backward and collapses in his chair, defeated. Watching that scene as the parent of a small child, I can now feel the strong cross-currents of pity and guilt cut through me, so when that window above opens and shuts, it’s my own hand on the lever, giving the light and then taking it away.

By the time I discovered his movies, Karloff was already an old man, and much was made of his essential grandfatherliness in the articles I read that dubbed him “the gentle monster”, although it was hard to think of the living-dead giant in Son of Frankenstein who tears off a police chief’s arm and uses it as a club as “gentle.”

One of his films was called The Man They Could Not Hang, and that name, more than “the gentle monster” summed up a side of Karloff that felt very important to me.

Every actor whose character dies in one movie and then goes on to act in another “comes back to life.” Not every actor gets to come back from the dead within the same movie, but Karloff did, again and again. In all of his incarnations—Imhotep, Frankenstein’s monster, John Grey, the message was the same—we are born, we live, we die, we come back. But we are changed. There was something instructive, even reassuring to me about all of that dying and coming back to life. It made me feel that I could do that too—or that one day, Karloff would show me how.

Like all good character actors, Karloff did not hide his aging. As I devoured thirty years’-worth of his films, I watched the gaunt, spectral giant with the hollow cheeks turn into the solid, white-haired eminence with the shaggy glowering eyebrows. Lugosi, rightly or wrongly, had been pegged early in his career as an exotic lover-type—Karloff was never saddled with that kind of expectation and let us watch what time was doing to his body all the way to the end.

At the end, Karloff was acting from a wheelchair because of cancer and emphysema, doing his last movie with an oxygen tank by his side. I imagine him cupping the mask to his face with one hand, holding the script in the other, then rising stiffly and shuffling out in front of the camera, the way I first saw him do on that flickering black and white TV screen, on that Saturday morning so long ago.

One sunny morning when my mother was driving me to elementary school, she turned down the radio and calmly told me that Boris Karloff had died. I remember looking out the car window at the red brick school building, the green field and pond behind the fence, the cracked black asphalt bike-walk and the little brook that ran alongside it where minnows swam. As I gazed out the window at the high flying clouds and the gnarled trees standing in a silent circle around the old pond, I felt a smile slowly forming on my face, and thought, I wonder what he’ll come back as this time?

It’s now 2010 and I will be fifty-five years old in four months. The old Zenith TV on which I first saw those movies is gone, reduced to its component molecules of glass and metal. The movies, however, are still here. I have them right in front of me as I type this, in three beautifully packaged DVD boxed sets. I can watch them any time, pause and rewind them, see behind-the-scenes documentaries and listen to director’s commentaries. I own them now, but not in the way that I owned them before—I can control them, and that seems wrong.

Still, I want my son to see these movies. I want him to have what they gave me. But I don’t want to show him too soon. I want to wait until he’s ready, but I’m not sure when that might be.

Last week I called my mother to ask how old I was when I first started watching monster movies.

“You were ten,” she said without a moment’s pause, as if she had a written record open in front of her.

“Really?” I said, “Are you sure?”  I was disappointed, and I knew she could probably hear it in my voice.

“Oh yes,” she said, “He still has a few more years to go.” I listened to the sound of my mother’s voice coming through the earpiece, her strong Kentucky accent that always surprises me a little. I’ve always thought it was impossible to tell how old my mother was by listening to her voice, although now I can hear the inevitable sound of age creeping in at its edges; I wonder if she can hear the same thing in mine.

In my hometown there were two cemeteries I had to pass by on the way home, each one on opposite sides of Cemetery Road. I remember looking through the back-seat window at those crypts squatting under ancient nodding cypress, the sky summer-humid and full of haze, glowing with a pearly gray luminescence that etched every crooked tree in hard-edged relief.

I remember looking at all of those gravestones passing by, and instead of feeling fear, I felt anticipation, excitement. I will die, I thought. Then I will rise and walk again. I will fly, far above those gnarled trees in that pearly gray sky, then swoop down low over the passing cars whose drivers will glance up and wonder what they’ve just seen. I will touch down and stalk through the fields like a scarecrow come to life and find the homes of evil men. I will rap on their windows and wait for them to look out, then make their wicked hearts burst with fright when they see my face. Or perhaps I will find a child who is alone and friendless, and teach him to be unafraid, first of me, then of the world. He will tell people what he has seen, but they will not believe him and will shun him and call him crazy. Then I will rise up behind him like the moon rising over a parched horizon, that boy’s enemies will be torn and scattered like dry leaves and he will be justified forever. Because that is what the dead can do.

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