I’m a traditionalist when it comes to horror, chiefly because I don’t actually enjoy being scared; those old dark houses are a comfort zone nowadays, and that’s where I spent Saturday and Sunday evening, with vintage double bills from RKO and Hammer. Here’s how they stacked up:
NIGHT OF THE DEMON (Jacques Tourneur, 1957). Fear from a more civilized age, as when Niall MacGinnis’s avuncular villain finds our cursed hero (Dana Andrews) breaking and entering his mansion, expresses no surprise, and calmly watches him leave by the same window he came in. Call the police? What a vulgar thought. As for the demon itself, well, fine – laugh it up, futureboy. No, it probably didn’t give Kong nightmares even at the time, and there’s an argument that it should’ve remained unseen throughout, thereby preserving the ambiguity of the story as well as its fear-of-the-unseen suspense. But me, well, I said I wasn’t here to be scared, and there’s a genuine savage beauty, somewhere outside of realism, to the stop-motion creature whose two appearances bookend the film.
VAMPIRE CIRCUS (Robert Young, 1971). Fear from a kinkier age, what with its floggings, dwarf abuse and sexy Drac-analog Count, staked in the prologue by nineteenth-century villagers, ripe for resurrection by the titular circus that visits the now plague-quarantined burgh fifteen years later. As in Tod Browning’s decades-earlier Freaks, decent God-fearing citizens’ indulgence of a good show can turn swiftly to violence when these disreputable carnies appear to be up to no good, with no apologies forthcoming when mitigating evidence comes to light. (Well, sure, they ultimately were up to no good. But you didn’t know that, peasants! What we have here’s a chicken-or-egg question, and don’t anybody ask Olga Baclanova.) If you’ve ever been lured by the elegant carnality of vampirism, then like the village’s more nubile inhabitants, you’re willing this circus to run away with you.
Interlude I had the pleasure of conversing with our host, the estimable Mr Cyberschizoid, between screenings. The aforementioned Classic Horror Campaign was his brainchild, and this primarily London and Brighton-based operation’s Manchester visit, with (I think) mention of a Birmingham trip in the pipeline, prompted my half-jest that it might yet become the real-life vampire circus. So keep an eye out for these fiends if they do invade your town, and do please sign their petition to reinstate vintage frightflix to the BBC. I mean, what’ve I been talking about lately? Heritage, people. Buried treasure! With a multitude of digital and online options available, there’s no excuse for fobbing us off with wall-to-wall Geordie Shore, right? Now, on with the show.
CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Tourneur, 1942). Back in civilization again, but that was always a facade for horror to lurk behind. And not just horror; Cat People, being the drama of an unconsummated marriage as much as (or indeed inasmuch as) it is the vengeful panther inside Simone Simon, sprays psychoerotic tension around like the perfume she’s so fond of. While keeping a wary eye on that fancy shrink, of course; as with the Rhesus-negative ringmistress we heard from earlier, horror so often defines itself when play-fighting with its own baser impulses. It’s all about sex with you people, isn’t it?
SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (Gordon Hessler, 1970). A gloriously improbable bringing together of three seemingly unrelated story threads (yep, it’s Hammer’s own Magnolia). A heart-attack victim wakes up in what appears to be a hospital bed, but the uncommunicative nurse leaves him none the wiser as to why it was necessary to amputate his leg… Cutbacks to his predicament form the missing link between Kafka and a sketch show – every time he wakes up, another limb gone. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard are hunting an apparently superhuman serial killer. And meanwhile, somewhere in the Soviet Union, a rogue Comrade climbs the promotion ladder by subjecting every interfering superior to what a layman like me is happy to be corrected for describing as a Vulcan death grip. Within its own deranged parameters, all eventually becomes clear.
I want more. So do you. So sign the petition and let’s get haunted, ok? Tim Burton can’t do everything himself.