Horror movies



MICHAEL & JOHN BRUNAS and TOM WEAVER – Universal Horrors.The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946. McFarland, hardcover, 1990, softcover, 2017.

   Fans of that sort of thing should drop what they’re doing and rush out in the street to buy this book. Handsomely produced, exhaustive but never tedious, this is the survey of those wonderful (and sometimes wonderfully inept) Horror Films put out from 1931 to 1946 by the Horror Studio.

   There are fascinating bits of information on budgets and stock footage, intelligent interviews with the surviving principals and minor character actors, and even an occasional bit of critical depth.

   It’s all too rare that a book manages not to insult the reader’s intelligence even while seriously discussing films that do, but Universal Horrors actually manages to chart its way from the giddy heights of Bride of Frankenstein   and The Black Cat all the way down to things like Night in Paradise and The Brute Man without putting a foot wrong.

   Of course, there are a few mistakes in critical Judgement, by which I mean that the authors don’t always agree with me. I have always been struck by the contrast in Universal Monster Movies between the bland, unengaging “heroes” of these films and the intriguing treatment of the hairy outcasts who are supposed to be the Bad Guys.

   I’ve reflected that kids watched these things in movie houses, where they were re-released right up to the early 50s, then stayed up late a night to catch them on television through the 60s, and I’ve always wondered if this was how the Hippies got their start.

   Weaver and the Brunases don’t bring this up — perhaps just as well — nor do they cite the bit of Invisible Man stock footage that was always [any good Sherlockian’s] favorite bit of Holmesian Trivia, but they do manage to run to earth just about every other bit of stock footage, retreaded script and reused actor from almost a hundred movies that most film historians wouldn’t give the time of day.

   And they do it in a way that is almost compulsively readable. I recommend this one highly.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #34, September 2004.
Trick AND Treat:
The Halloween Tree on Page and Screen
by Matthew R. Bradley.


   When I interviewed Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) in 1994, he explained the genesis of his novel The Halloween Tree (1972), whose youthful protagonists were based directly on his own childhood experiences and friends, “In many ways, or experiences I had later in Mexico. It’s an amalgam of memories and my interest in Halloween. I painted a picture [in 1960] called The Halloween Tree, a large tempera painting, it’s about three feet by four feet…I was having lunch with Chuck Jones, the animator, one day…It was the day after Halloween and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown [10/27/66] had been on, which I hated, and all my children ran over and kicked the TV set because they promised you the Great Pumpkin and [then] he never appeared.

   â€œWell, you can’t do that to kids, you know. You cannot promise them something that exciting, you’ve got to have [him] appear. Maybe it’s an illusion, maybe it’s a trick, whatever, the children think they see [him] and we the audience know that they don’t see him. But nevertheless, one way or the other [he’s] got to show up.

   “So I was complaining about this to Chuck [who made the classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (12/18/66) for MGM], and he said, ‘Well, hell, why don’t we do our own film on Halloween and do it right?’ [So] I brought him my painting and lugged it over to the animation studio and he said, ‘My God, that’s it, that’s the genetic tree, that’s the family tree of Halloween.

   â€œâ€˜Let’s go back in time to the caves and the Greek and Roman myths, and come on up through Europe with the Druids and into Ireland and Scotland and England and America and Mexico. You write the screenplay,’ which I promptly did in the fall of [that year], I believe.

   “And in about two months I had the thing ready to shoot, at which point MGM tore down all of its animation studios and fired everyone. We were all out on the street suddenly. I peddled the screenplay around and optioned it to various animation studios off and on for many years, and it took a good part of twenty years to finally get someone else interested,” during which he converted it into a novel illustrated by Joseph Mugnaini.

   In “a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state,” Tom Skelton and seven other boys dressed for All Hallows’ Eve are perplexed by the absence of Joe Pipkin, “the greatest boy who ever lived.” Emerging from his home pale, unmasked, and holding his right side, he pledges to catch up with them at “the place of the Haunts” in the inevitable ravine, whose tall, black-clad resident, Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, slams the door with a “No treats. Only — trick!”

   Behind the house, they see the titular tree hung with 1,000 jack-o’-lanterns, and after rising from a pile of leaves in the guise of a skull, he offers to reveal “all the deep dark wild history of Halloween…”

   For this, they must travel to the Undiscovered Country (i.e., the Past), and when they say they must await Pip, he appears, feeling unwell, but in the ravine, his pumpkin light goes out, and he vanishes. Moundshroud says Death has “borrowed” Pipkin, “perhaps to hold him for ransom,” and taken him to the Undiscovered Country, so the lads can “solve two-mysteries-in-one.”

   He has them build a kite out of circus posters covering an abandoned barn, a pterodactyl with the boys (including Ralph Bengstrum and Wally Babb) as its tail, followed by a scythe-carrying Moundshroud, his cape serving as wings; they fly over the town and into Egypt, 2000 B.C., where food is left on doorsteps for homecoming ghosts.

   Deducing that the youthful mummy in the funeral procession they are watching is Pip, his friends are eager to save him, but Moundshroud cautions patience, proceeding to explain how fire got the cavemen through the night, wondering if the sun would rise the next day. Atop a pyramid, they see similar offerings being made in ancient Greece and Rome; from there, the wind blows them off to the British Isles to see “England’s own druid God of the Dead,” Samhain, who turns the dead to beasts for their sins. A dog amidst this maddened menagerie, Pip eludes them again before they watch animal sacrifices being made by the druid priests, cut down by Roman soldiers who themselves are cut down by Christians…

   In the Dark Ages, the boys are carried off by brooms, prompting a lesson in how “anyone too smart, who didn’t watch out,” was accused as a witch; they “liked to believe they had power, but they had none…”

   In Paris, Pip is chained as the clapper of a bronze bell on a huge scaffolding, and as they ascend to free him, Notre Dame builds itself beneath their feet, its giant shadow banishing the witches. Reaching the top and finding Pip gone, they whistle for gargoyles to ornament the cathedral, realizing that one figure is Pip, who says he is not dead yet, with parts of him in the places they’ve been and “a hospital a long way off home,” but a lightning bolt knocks him off before Pip reveals how they can help him.

   Moundshroud says they must reassemble the Autumn Kite and fly to Mexico, the night’s “last grand travel” and a place of powerful association for Bradbury, who was frightened by the mummies in the catacombs of Guanajuato and set several stories there.

   On El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead Ones), the boys see the graveyard filled with people singing and placing flowers, cookies, sugar skulls, candles, and miniature funerals on the graves of their loved ones. Opening a trapdoor in an abandoned cemetery, Moundshroud says they must bring Pip up from the catacombs below, where they find him at the end of a long hall, both he and they too terrified to run the gauntlet with 50 mummies on a side.

   Moundshroud proposes a bargain: breaking a sugar skull bearing Pipkin’s name in eight pieces, he says they can ransom him if each gives a year from the end of his life, so they agree and eat the bits. Freed, Pip races right past them and disappears, so Moundshroud transports them back to Illinois, noting that “It’s all one…Always the same but different, eh? every age, every time. Day was always over. Night was always coming….Summer and winter, boys. Seedtime and harvest. Life and death. That’s what Halloween is, all rolled up in one.” The boys learn that Pip’s appendix was taken out just in time and, after decorating his porch with lit pumpkins to await his return, drift back to their own homes.

   Continued Bradbury, “finally David Kirschner…of Hanna-Barbera, came into my life. We talked about it for a year or so, and then finally two years ago he came back and said, ‘Hey, we got the money, Ted Turner’s one of our new bosses, and we want to buy The Halloween Tree. Will you freshen up your screenplay?’ I said, ‘I sure will.’

   “So I spent a couple of months [on it]…and that was it…Nothing was changed after that. We added a little more narration…They said, ‘Look, you’re ignoring your own best qualities here. Let’s add more of your individual voice, and let’s have you read it, hunh?’ And by God they were right. I went into the studio and read the narration, and it’s a nice addition.”

   The film halves the trick-or-treaters to Jenny (voiced by Annie Barker), replacing Henry-Hank Smith in the Witch costume, Tom (Edan Gross; Skeleton), Ralph (Alex Greenwald; Mummy), and Wally (Andrew Keegan; Gargoyle).

   Backed with evocative music by John Debney, an Oscar nominee for The Passion of the Christ (2004) who’d also worked with producer — and in this case director — Mario Piluso on Jonny’s Golden Quest (1993), the narration is almost verbatim from the book. After seeing Pip (Kevin Michaels) taken off in an ambulance, they find a note urging them to “Go ahead without me,” but seek to visit him instead; a shortcut through the ravine takes them to Moundshroud (Leonard Nimoy).

   Pip’s ghostly form takes a pumpkin bearing his likeness from the titular tree, vanishing in a tornado; this becomes a concrete cinematic MacGuffin rather than his peripatetic person or spirit, continually eluding Moundshroud, who seeks his soul.

   After the kite takes them to ancient Egypt, a more kid-friendly druid episode — sans Samhain, sacrifices, or Roman soldiers to “Destroy the pagans! ”— is set in Stonehenge, segueing via the Broom Festival to Notre Dame, which Moundshroud says, echoing Quasimodo, offers “Sanctuary!” The gargoyles’ connection with the monster mask worn by oft-aghast Wally (a drinking game based on each time he gasps, “Oh, my gosh!” would imperil the liver) is now established.

   Evoking Bradbury’s Playboy story (September 1963) and Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode (10/26/64) “The Life Work of Juan Diaz,” the final stop finds a more assertive Tom braving the mummies to reach Pip, taking the blame for wishing that something would happen to make him the group’s leader. But at the moment of forgiveness, Moundshroud grabs the pumpkin: “Children, it’s business. With his illness, his rent came due, and there was no payment. He’s mine now,” leading Tom to suggest the bargain instead. Pip flies off with his pumpkin and they are all whisked home, where it is found adorning his porch rail, Pip having narrowly survived the surgery, while Moundshroud delivers his summation about the universality of Halloween, and flies away with the remaining pumpkins from the tree.

   â€œ[I]t’s a nice film, and I…won an Emmy for it [it was also nominated for Outstanding Animated Children’s Program]. I had a wonderful relationship with the studio, and no problems, no friction. The film is…available…so people can buy it, and it’s been on two years running…It’s hard to find the damn thing. They’ll have it on in the middle of the afternoon or late at night, and I hope maybe next year they’ll have it at a decent hour.”

   But I’ll leave the last word to his literary characters: “They were stopped by a final shout from Moundshroud: ‘Boys! Well, which was it? Tonight, with me — trick or treat?’ The boys took a vast breath, held it, burst it out: ‘Gosh, Mr. Moundshroud — both!’”


         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.


   Excerpted from the forthcoming (God willing) The Group: Sixty Years of California Sorcery on Screen.

      Edition cited:

The Halloween Tree: Bantam (1974)

      Online source:




   Take a look at this. I promise you the movie isn’t nearly as enthralling as the trailer makes it out to be, but it is nonetheless a fun time. Bring your suspension of belief. A lot of it!



FRIDAY THE 13th, PART VI:  JASON LIVES (1986). Paramount Pictures, 1986. Thom Mathews, Jennifer Cooke, David Kagen, Kerry Noonan, Renee Jones), Tom Fridley, C.J. Graham (Jason). Written and directed by Tom McLoughlin.

   Earlier this week, my father and I had  the opportunity to attend a special screening of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Which to some people probably doesn’t sound like much; after all, it was just another installment in the gruesome long-running slasher franchise which exploited suburban fears and terrors. Those people couldn’t be more wrong.

   Directed by Tom McLaughlin, in photo to the left, this entry in the Jason series is a clever, fun, and dare I say – meta – film that provides an equal amount of scares and self-referential laughs. With a Gothic vibe (the movie was filmed in semi-rural Georgia), Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives is, in many ways, an updated 1930s Universal Horror film. Here, Jason isn’t just a crazed man with a hockey mask; he’s a supernatural entity brought back from the dead. And it’s up to the person who resurrected him to put him back where he belongs; namely, dead in the infamous Crystal Lake.

   What made this viewing at the American Cinematique in Los Feliz CA particularly special was seeing director Tom McLaughlin introduce not only the film, but a large number of cast members, many of whom shared their experiences working on the project. [See photo below.] One thing that struck me was how he mentioned that he had no idea (and I certainly believe him) that, some 37 years later, people would be gathering en masse for a sold out screening of his sole entry into the franchise.

   Many consider this to be the best of the series, including all of the  fans watching it one more timein a sold-out theater,  It’s difficult to disagree.

Bonus: The soundtrack by Alice Cooper  gives the film some rebellious theatrical vibes that stay with you long after the lights come back on.



   This trailer for Critters (1986) doesn’t do the film justice. It’s a lot funnier, livelier, and creative than what you see in this video clip. Rather than just a straightforward sci-fi/horror film, Critters is a cult favorite.

   And understandably so. You’ve got some great characters, a good rural Kansas setting, and a sense of humor and fun that ramps up the laughter. I recently had a chance to see a sold-out screening at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema and the crowd loved it. I did too.



   This one is a very unique trailer. AIP released this comedy-horror cult film with a particularly compelling trailer that horrifies with humor. Notice one of the stars of the film is Eugene Levy, who went on to a stellar comedy career. The director is Ivan Reitman, who later went on to do Ghostbusters.



SILVER BULLET. Paramount Pictures, 1985. Gary Busey, Everett McGill, Corey Haim, Megan Follows, Terry O’Quinn, Lawrence Tierney, Bill Smitrovich. Narrator: Tovah Feldshuh. Screenplay by by Stephen King, based on his novel. Directed by Dan Attias.

   This is a quintessentially Stephen King movie. What do I mean by that, exactly? Well, for starters, the official title of the movie is Stephen King’s Silver Bullet. Or so that’s what it says on the VHS box cover. Also, the screenplay is by King, adapted from his novelette, “Cycle of the Werewolf” (1983). The movie is well-entrenched in the horror genre, set in a small town where evil lurks just under the surface, and where kids can be insightful, cruel, and far wiser than adults. Sounds like King to me.

   The plot. Evil comes to Tarkers Mills, a small town with the usual coterie of King characters. Here the darkness comes in the form of a judgmental local religious leader, Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill) who – it just so happens – also is a werewolf.

   Ultimately, it’s up to wheelchair bound teenager Marty Coslaw (Corey Haim) to both discover Lowe’s dark secret and to convince his skeptical Uncle Red (Gary Busey) that the local minister is a lycanthrope. There’s also a subplot about Marty’s strained relationship with his older sister Jane, who is weary of having to play second fiddle to her paralyzed younger brother.

   Look for Lawrence Tierney as a bar owner who joins a vigilante mob that tries to hunt down the serial killer responsible for a number of local gruesome slayings. (Hint: it wasn’t a serial killer). Tierney has an oversized presence in any movie that he’s in, so much so that even though he probably doesn’t have more than forty or fifty words of dialogue, he’s very much a primary character.

   Watching on VHS was an experience. It gave the movie that subdued analog feel that seems fitting for a 1980’s King movie. This wasn’t the first time I watched Silver Bullet. I remember watching it when I must have been eleven or twelve. It must have been on HBO. And I was absolutely terrified. Well, I can say I was less scared this time. Time and age has a way of doing that to people. But it’s still a hair-raising experience. Pun intended.

   Silver Bullet isn’t really a good movie, per se. But it’s a highly nostalgic one. Both in terms of my own childhood memories and in terms of its content.




THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Hammer Films, UK, 1957. Peter Cushing (Victor Frankenstein), Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. Christopher Lee (The Creature), Melvyn Hayes, Valerie Gaunt. Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Director: Terence Fisher.

   The previous time I had seen Hammer’s Gothic classic, The Curse of Frankenstein, it was at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Screened in glorious 35mm as part of a Halloween lineup, the movie’s aesthetic definitely made an impression on me.

   Much like the Universal Monsters films from the 1930s, the Hammer Films have the capacity to transport the viewer into a self-enclosed universe of ghouls and monsters. Everything from the costumes to the lighting works in tandem to create a celluloid dreamworld that is – in my humble opinion – simply unmatched in contemporary horror film-making.

   So when I came across a VHS copy, I jumped at the chance. It wasn’t that expensive ($10), and the box is in relatively good condition. Plus, it’s got somewhat atypical cover art that admittedly captures Peter Cushing’s eyes quite well!

   Now there’s nothing new under the sun here in terms of storytelling. If you know the Frankenstein story (legend?), then you’re not going to be surprised by all that much. Young Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) hires Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), a tutor to help him with his studies. As years go by, Frankenstein emerges as a scientific genius with a penchant for danger.

   It doesn’t take long for the tutor to disavow his former student’s desire to create life from death. Complicating matters even further is the entrance of the beautiful Elizabeth (Hazel Court), Frankenstein’s cousin who threatens to pull the mad doctor not only away from his work, but also from the chambermaid he’s been having an affair with!

   Christopher Lee doesn’t speak a word, but he’s quite convincing as the scarred, deformed, and ultimately tragic Frankenstein monster – or, as the film credits state, “The Creature.” There’s a great scene in which Baron Frankenstein lords over a chained and terrified Creature, reminding us just who the monster in this movie really is.

   I appreciated watching this one on VHS as it allowed me to focus a bit more on the characters than I did when I saw it at the New Beverly. Altogether, well worth the ten bucks.



FRIDAY THE 13th, PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN. Paramount Pictures, 1989. Todd Caldecott (as Todd Shaffer), Tiffany Paulsen, Timothy Burr Mirkovich, Kane Hodder, Jensen Daggett, Barbara Bingham, Alex Diakun, Peter Mark Richman, Ace. Screenwriters: Rob Hedden & Victor Miller. Director: Robert Hedden.

   Directed by Robert Hedden, this installment in the seemingly never-ending Friday the 13th franchise apparently was not a financial success. Which is kind of important for a movie such as this. After all, it’s never going to win an Oscar. So what else is there? While I enjoyed watching it on VHS – what better format for a movie such as this? – I can’t say that it left me wanting to watch it again in this format anytime soon.


   The main problem with Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan is that, well, it’s all kind of flat. Jason, although portrayed with great physicality by Kane Hodder, doesn’t exactly take anything, much less Manhattan. In actuality, the majority of the screen time in this mid-tier slasher is devoted to Jason, the goalie mask-wearing unkillable villain, wreaking havoc on a New York-bound ship filled with teenagers. Now that’s not to say that there isn’t some style and penache to the movie. There is, for instance, a well choreographed kill scene on a dance floor. Death to disco indeed. But the Manhattan scenes come much later and, apart from a Times Square sequence, were pretty clearly filmed on a studio lot or some equivalent.

   The plot, such as it is, follows teenager Rennie (Jensen Daggett) and her guardian Charles McCulloch (Peter Mark Richman) as they embark on a group boat ride to New York City. Richman is an actor who I like a lot. Not sure how he ended up in this feature. But I’ve appreciated his numerous television appearances in the past, including in Three’s Company where he portrayed Chrissy’s father. He exudes a certain understated dryness which makes him stand out from the sundry other character actors of his generation.

   Back to the movie.

   Ok. Jason somehow – does it really matter? – ends up on board and begins his inevitable killing spree. There’s a subplot with one of the teenage girls entrapping McCullogh into a risque position which is then captured on good ol’ videocassette. But other than that, there’s nothing particularly interesting about what happens on board. Except that is for Rennie’s hallucinatory flashbacks in which she envisions a young innocent Jason drowning. Those moments were pretty cool, to be honest.

   Pretty standard mid-tier slasher stuff. Important to keep in mind: this entry into the Friday the 13th canon is from 1989. By then, the slasher formula had more or less run its course and there was little to nothing new under the sun. It wasn’t until Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) that the stale genre was given a much-needed reboot.



THE WALKING DEAD. Warner Brothers, 1936. Boris Karloff, Ricardo Cortez, Edmund Gwenn, Marguerite Churchill, Warren Hull, Barton MacLane, and Joe Sawyer. Written by Ewart Adamson, Peter Milne, Robert Hardy Andrews, Lillie Hayward, and Joseph Fields. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

   Formulaic but fun.

   Warners made a few Horror movies in the 1930s and 40s, some of them quite good, but even at their ghouliest, they never abandoned the tough-guy outlook that was the studio’s stock in trade. Mystery of the Wax Museum, Return of Dr X, The Smiling Ghost and even Beast with Five Fingers to some extent feature dense cops, detectives of varying competence, smart-ass reporters, hardened criminals, and underworld hangers-on. The Walking Dead is distinct from these only in that it features somewhat more organized crime, nicely reinforced by the stylish direction of Michael Curtiz.

   Karloff stars as John Elman, an ex-con who falls into the gears of mob-lawyer Ricardo Cortez’s scheme to rub out an uncooperative Judge, and ends up as the fall guy, fretting on Death Row while a young couple who witnessed the actual killing agonize over whether to come forward to clear him and risk the wrath of heavies like Barton MacLane and Joe Sawyer. There’s a beautifully-done and melancholy “last mile” walk to the hot seat – precursor to the similar trek in Angels with Dirty Faces — word from the Governor comes just as the lights go dim, and then….

   Well, it happens that the young couple who came too late to Elman’s rescue are in the employ of eccentric medico Edmond Gwenn, who has just kept a human heart beating outside the body for two weeks and is eager to try a Revival Meeting with Elman’s corpse.

   I use the term “Revival Meeting” because there is a strong spiritual component to the last half of this film. The revived man now knows who framed him, and exerts a frightening influence over the nasties that lead to some not-always-convincing fatal accidents. At the same time, Doctor Gwenn is pressuring him for details about things on “the other side” and the source of Elman’s newfound powers.

   Karloff sports a frizzy hairdo with a shocking white streak for this part, and walks with the eerie, half-paralyzed shuffle later adopted by Kharis. How much of this is due to his acting or to Curtiz’ direction may be debatable, but the result is quite effective, and the film itself moves along so fast there’s no time to get used to it. It’s a case of actor, director and studio at the top of their form, and a film not to be missed.


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