If you are a fan of older horror movies, this is probably your favorite time of year. The time leading up to Halloween has become the period when the cable movie channels insert the older horror movies into their schedule. If you are in your 60s you probably have seen all these before but if you are in your 60s you probably haven’t seen some in more than 30 years and the last time you saw them you were seeing worn out prints. With digitization many of those movies are available on clean restored prints.
One of the oldest and strangest movies I saw recently is ‘Vampyr’ (also called ‘Vampire: the Dream of Allan Grey’). This is a German movie made in 1930 but not released until 1932. It was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer who is well known for the ‘Passion of Joan of Arc’. The movie was filmed in the style of silent movies and it had title cards to explain parts of the story. There was dialog dubbed in but the effect is of a silent movie. The story is about what Alan sees and later dreams as he is led by shadows from the inn in which he is spending the night to a castle and then a manor. A young woman is slowly being drained by a vampire. Alan discovers this and tries to stop it.
If you are familiar with silent movies you would probably enjoy this. If you are a fan of modern vampire movies, I don’t think you would know what to make of this. It is slow moving and ambiguous. It was a flop when it was released, I doubt audiences were as familiar with the horror genre as we are today. Many modern reviewers praise it. I found it visually striking. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys antique horror movies.
Another older movie I saw recently is ‘I Walked With A Zombie’. This is a ‘B’ movie whose odd title probably explains some of the strange reviews (‘B’ movies are movies designed to be part of double bills, they were made quickly, they were usually genre films that could find an easy audience). It is the story of a nurse who is hired by a sugar plantation owner to take care of his ill wife.
When she goes into town she hears a calypso singer and she discovers through this songs that something happened between the owner and his brother that resulted in the near death of the owner’s wife. Most of the islanders are of African ancestry and have their own folk beliefs about voodoo (very much Hollywoodized in a not very pc way). If you are expecting zombie flesh eaters you are out of luck here. It is a story of romance and tragedy. The style is old fashioned and the acting can seem corny to modern viewers.
The producer was Val Lewton. This was his follow up to Cat People. This is classed as horror but it isn’t horror as we would know it today. It is more of a mystery. Oddly given how highly Lewton’s movies are thought of today, he was hired to make cheap short movies that would make an easy profit. This movie makes fine use of the young nurse’s unfamiliarity with the world and culture of the island she is now living on. Certainly viewers of the time would be pleased by the run up to the ending which leaves us in the dark as to whether the death of the lovers was from voodoo or from natural causes.
Contemporary reviews were strange. I wonder if the NY Times reviewer even saw movie, he seems to be reviewing the concept of the movie. Perhaps he saw it on a double bill and snoozed through it.
Would younger viewers like these and other ‘classics’? I don’t know. In one review of ‘Cat People’, Roger Ebert wondered if these were too quiet for today’s viewer. If you need red blood to have fun, stay away, but if atmospheric story telling works for you this is a movie you should see.