Of H’Wood and H’Ween
Jeff Boam’s Horrific Top 10 Movies
Despite time spent learning the movie biz from soup to plain nuts in the trenches of H’wood itself, and making several of my own flicks as well, I may have received my best horror film education from an institution known as Uncle Ted’s Ghoul School. Every television market across the country had its own late-night horror movie showcase hosted by a unique, and often eccentric, huckster (during the late ’70s and early ’80s, the rights to many dated flicks fell into the public domain, which made them prime pickings for cost-conscience affiliates).
In Northeastern Pennsylvania, WNEP 16 gave us Uncle Ted, a be-spectacled older gent with a bushy white mustache, red fez and a droll smoker’s voice. When he wasn’t doing dimestore magic tricks, Ted (whose real name was Edwin Raub) played straight man to the screwball antics of his clownish assistant, Nefu Ned. On his website billoreilly.com, national television personality Bill O’Reilly claims to have made an extra $20 a week writing jokes for the Ghoul School. More importantly, however, Uncle Ted hosted horror flicks and it was his Friday night program that first introduced me to the Universal monster classics, namely Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein.
During the day, however, I gained more of my horror film education at the track … and when I say ‘track,’ I mean ‘The Rat Race.’ In the afternoon, WNEP screened horror and sci-fi films under a themed banner covering the whole week. In between the screams and thrills, there were call-in contests like “Dialing for Dollars” and, yes, “Rat Race,” which featured rodents running down numbered tubes (the caller, of course, had to choose a winner at the start gates).
Planet of the Apes week was a frequent treat, but Hammer Horror weeks stood out as my personal favorite. Universal invented the modern monster mash-up (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man, and the Mummy), but the UK-based Hammer Studios kept them alive through to the ’70s with more blood, sex and color.
The sum total of this horror film education can be found below where I recount my Top 10 Horror Films.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Like The Godfather, Part II and The Empire Strikes Back, this proves to be a sequel that ups the creative ante and improves upon its predecessor. In picking up right where the last chapter left off, director James Whale manages to seamlessly layer in a Mary Shelly prologue, inject more gallows humor, and give filmgoers a sympathetic talking monster who brilliantly wrings pathos from audiences despite weak knees.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
It’s not just that it’s the Grand Pappy of zombie flicks (aside from Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, that is). It’s not just that it was George Romero’s calling card to Movieland. It’s that it’s an independently made DIY thriller of the highest order that holds up in an age of lightning-fast edits and CGI flesh-eaters. Claustrophobic and stark in glorious 16mm black and white, it might even be scarier now more than ever.
Horror of Dracula (1958)
This adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic horror standard struck a chord with me long before Bela Lugosi ever appeared on my family’s television. A crazy-eyed Christopher Lee as the titular vampire and a stoic Peter Cushing as monster-hunter Van Helsing truly punctuate these childhood memories … which usually involved hiding behind a couch.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski’s demonic thriller strays between under-the-skin deadly realism and over-the-top fantastical indulgence. But this dichotomy proves to be the perfect intersection for staging this nightmarish tale of the occult that could only have been pulled off by an uncompromising auteur like Polanski. Scary but corny, shocking but oft-kilter, Rosemary birthed a true shocker.
The Exorcist (1973)
Like the best films of the “Me” Generation, this classic strived for realism and substance over style. But boy, did director William Friedkin’s end product evince a style that’s real-as-hell. William Peter Blatty’s bestseller had already scared the bejesus out of god-fearers, but Friedkin’s take on ‘real events’ scared every filmgoer regardless of race, sex or religion. Also, a nomination wasn’t enough … Jason Miller deserved an Oscar for his turn as a troubled priest who’s lost faith.
The Shining (1980)
A genre-defying auteur, Stanley Kubrick took The Shining and made it his own feral animal to such an extent that it royally peeved the book’s author, Stephen King. The writer would go on to adapt and produce his own 1997 TV-movie version about a writer going mad at closed-up resort, but the first is a superior master stroke of atmospheric horror. It helps that Jack Nicholson is on top of his game, going from 0 to Psycho in mere seconds.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Overall, John Carpenter’s Halloween is the better slasher film — no question. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, however, struck more of a personal chord with me. Maybe it was the armchair psychology masquerading as a morality play about sex-crazed teens being struck down through their dreams and desires. Or maybe it was Robert Englund’s letter-perfect turn as Freddy Kruger, a creepy killer who exists in the unconscious and is as good with a pun as he with a razor-clawed glove.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola made some true film masterworks, namely The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. His ridiculously stylish and vervy imagining of Stoker’s words and world doesn’t reach the same historic heights but still soars amazingly high. Powered by edgy production design and stellar performances (except for Keanu Reeves, whose turn hit the snooze alarm), this Dracula truly has bite.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
There was a time when people said ‘no’ to M. Night Shyamalan. He was hungry, had to carefully hone his craft to sell his vision to H’wood execs, and work hard to get script approval. This all resulted in The Sixth Sense, a smart supernatural chiller that still plays brilliantly again and again long after you already know the spoiler. Plus, Bruce Willis plays it chilly cool long before channeling the same stoneface as a stone-faced killer in Looper.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Why should the Americans have all of the fun? This Swedish import proves as gripping and compelling a thriller as moviegoers have seen in years or will see for sometime. It is, after all, a realistic vampire flick that happens to be about finding humanity in an ice-cold world. Matt Reeves did an ace job remaking it in English, but the look and feel of the instant-classic-original was never duplicated.
— jeff boam
Monster movie illustrations by students in Ted Michalowksi’s illustration class at Marywood University.