The purpose of this post is to provide a kind of introduction for those who havn’t yet discovered old classic horror movies and are going to be watching them for the first time….or simply might be wanting to find out more about them…
I hope that this post will act as a kind of, how to watch classic horror movies and assists in understanding and appreciating these old movies for what they were, and in the context of the time they came out.
The classics from the “golden age” (20’s 30’s and 40’s) were of coarse a lot different from horror films we see today. Most obviously they were either silent films (1900’s/1920’s) and/or made in black and white.
The pace of these old flicks is also what sets them apart and naturally, the lack of graphic sex and violence compared with todays standards.
What we are treated to instead is innovative camera work, creepy Gothic and other-worldly sets, deep archetypal themes, unforgettable characters and a superb macabre atmosphere!
Most significant though is that we’re asked to use our imagination!
The Power of Suggestion
Typical of the morals and standards of the day was in what was not shown…but what was “suggested”.
Old films have a way of leaving things up to the audience’s imagination by not being overtly explicit or detailed. What they allude to is usually highly controversial and as a result it’s left up to the viewer to process what they may or may not be witnessing.
At the same time…what is shown to the audience was (for the time) extremely radical and truly pushed the limits of acceptability.
Remember, people were going along to see the latest “mystery picture” and “melodrama”, which is how these films were described.
When they heard wolves howling and blood-curdling screams, creaking doors and screeching bats. Or hysterical maniacal laughter and graves being dug…when they witnessed vampires, living corpses and human “beasts” for the first time…they were, understandably…offended by it all.
An Unsuspecting Audience
To truly grasp the quality and effect of these pictures we must remember how strange and interesting they were for their day. No one had seen that kind of thing before. People were very unsettled from watching them and this was when movie-going was a favorite national pastime.
It’s true that people actually thought Lionel Barrymore underwent a real onscreen transformation to become Mr. Hyde and that Bela Lugosi as Dracula was indeed a real life “vampire” (whatever that was).
At the beginning of Frankenstein, actor Edward van Sloan offers a “warning” about, “One of the strangest tales ever told” and how it will thrill, shock and even horrify them! He goes on to encourage them to leave if their nerves are not up for such a strain!
To try to put yourself in the shoes of the audience back then I think is the best way to fully understand and appreciate these pics.
One or the Other; Music or Dialogue?
Watching them now we see an early, rudimentary use of special effects/sound effects and an almost entire absence of music. This of coarse was the standard up until the 1930’s.
In it’s place was the expert use of light and shadow, surreal, expressionistic designs and stage-trickery (i.e. trap doors, use of strings and smoke etc.).
However the first few horror films of the “talkies” era are noticeably lacking in a music score. Filmmakers simply did not realize the importance of, or how to make effective use of music to add suspense and help tell the story.
Above all, what I think is most important to appreciate when watching old classic horror movies is that they were so inventive and original.
Oddities which are now so immediately recognizable that all others have been modeled after or influenced by.
Society has gone on to make use of their images, scenes and dialogue in so many areas. They have become absolutely iconic in so many ways…
These films are where it all started!
For your thoughts, comments and idea’s, please use the comment box below. If you have any questions, I will be more than happy to get back to you, usually within 24hrs. Thanks very much.