In the late 1950s, Columbia Pictures packaged up 52 black-and-white monster movies made by Universal Studios and released them into television syndication. The package as a whole, consisting of both great and not-so-great movies, was called Shock Theater and it was followed by a second grouping called Son of Shock. In Denver, KWGN-TV showed these movies over and over again during the 1970s and early '80s as part of its iconic Creature Features programming on Saturday nights. Across the country, a whole generation watched these films as well, fronted by hosts like Zacherly, Chilly Billy, and Vampira. The result was a codification of horror types in the collective consciousness, a core curriculum to which everyone could relate.
Today’s dissolute youth have far stronger stuff to stare at – splatter, exploitation, mondo movies and “shockumentaries,” disturbing J Horror, and the school of French Extremity, to name a few developing subgenres. But a solid grounding in the once-terrifying archetypes is essential to appreciating horror films. Here’s a quick primer in the top ten of old-school terror.
Your favorite kaiju (“strange beast”) is a big green-gray guy, a prehistoric monster resurrected from the ocean depths by nuclear testing — ready to wreak havoc on cardboard cities since 1954. Starting as a villain, the pioneer of Japanese monster-suit behemoth spawned a number of pals/enemies such as Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan; Godzilla is now a national hero, protector, and brand. Must-see: Godzilla (1954), Destroy All Monsters (1968), Godzilla (2014),
9. King Kong
The extremely possessive, 25-foot-tall prehistoric gorilla is the terror of Skull Island, with a place in Manhattan. That a blood-thirsty stop-motion miniature could inspire pathos is a tribute to his creator, animator Willis O’Brien. You can’t help but root for the big ape. Must-see: King Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949), King Kong (2005)
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8. Phantom of the Opera
The Original Stalker. If it weren’t for the incredibly successful 1986 musical adaptation by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Erik might have not made the list. The disfigured, love-struck, vengeful wraith who hides in the basement of the Paris Opera House, hopelessly infatuated with a young soprano, is at once debonair and revolting, a homicidal yet Romantic figure. Lon Chaney’s silent portrayal is the best. Must-see: The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Phantom of the Opera (1943), Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
7. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The embodiment of the split personality, the Doctor’s story is also a powerful metaphor for addiction as well as a cautionary tale about the limits of science. His experimental serum separates the good and bad sides of the soul – but instead of eliminating evil, it isolates and empowers it. Its sensibility reaches all the way back to the Faustian parable of gaining knowledge at the cost of one’s soul, and further, to the fatal choice of Adam and Eve. Some of the best actors in Jekyll and Hyde movies include John Barrymore, Fredric March, Jack Palance, and Christopher Lee. Must-see: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968), I, Monster (1971)
6. Creature from the Black Lagoon
The only classic monster never to get a reboot, and maybe it’s because Gill-man, a.k.a. The Creature, has no expressive capability whatsoever. He’s a blank slate (and a bit of a King Kong knockoff), the lagoon-loving last of a race of amphibious humanoids living up the Amazon. This recluse is extremely irritated by scientists interested in capturing him and putting him on display, but has a thing for curvy brunettes like Julia Adams. Must-see: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
5. The Invisible Man
Now you see him, now you don’t! The protagonist is a direct descendant of Jekyll, but H.G. Wells took a common daydream and breathed real life, and horror, into it. Scientist Griffin impulsively made himself invisible, and can’t undo it. Meanwhile, his new-found state unhinges him and he begins to plan to use his powers to create a reign of terror. The original film spawned four bad sequels; subsequent remakes have fallen short as well. Must-see: The Invisible Man (1933)
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4. The Mummy
Not a terribly speedy fellow, but terrifying just the same. Used in many cheap sequels and knockoffs as a kind of undead contract killer, the best movie versions focus on the tragedy of a man entombed alive for the crime of forbidden love, who chases his reincarnated paramour across the millennia when revived by the recital of the Scroll of Thoth. A relentless nemesis. Must-see: The Mummy (1932), The Mummy (1959), The Mummy (1999)
3. The Wolf Man
Poor Larry Talbot (as played by Lon Chaney, Jr.)! All he wants to do is die, and end the curse that forces him “to become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright.” No dice. Victims of a werewolf’s bite manifest the Sign of the Pentagram on their palms (visible to little old gypsy ladies only) and grow feral through stop-motion photography. And kill. Only silver objects can destroy one, which explains why none ever went up against the Lone Ranger. Must-see: The Wolf Man (1941), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), La Marca del Hombre Lobo (1967), The Howling (1981), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Ginger Snaps (2000), Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
The Ol’ Bloodsucker sure has a thing for ladies – and vice versa. Undead and living by drinking human blood, preferably that of virgins, the sexual undercurrents of a vampire’s appeal are thinly disguised. He’s a suave, princely, figure. In the original novel, he’s also a proud, ancient warrior with dreams of world domination. His hypnotic intensity makes him a predator in the guise of a gentleman. Must-see: Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Horror of Dracula (1958), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Okay, Okay — properly, it should be Frankenstein’s Monster, but it’s not. Get over it, purists. The poor creature, sewn together from the bodies of the dead and brought to life with lightning, is inarticulate, ungainly, and despised by all mankind (blind hermits and small children excepted). While his creator, Dr. F, whines and moans about the outcome of Tampering With Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, the monster gets blown up, burnt up, immersed in molten sulphur, drowned, and so on, evidently and regrettably immortal, with no rehabilitation plans in sight. Must-see: Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Young Frankenstein (1974)