This horrorfest goes to bat for the sake of fun, frights

Series: Grab some garlic and bug spray, the original `Dracula' and `The Fly' are coming to the Charles.

September 14, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

People go to horror movies for one of three reasons: to be scared, to be amazed, or to be amused.

So just about everyone should be happy with the festival opening tonight at the Charles and continuing Thursday evenings through October.

Charles co-owner John Standiford may not have had inclusiveness as his goal when he programmed the eight-week horrorfest - "I just picked the movies that were the most fun," he insists - but the result is the same: a selection of flicks ranging from the classic (the original versions of "Dracula," "King Kong" and "The Fly") to the ridiculous (Ed Wood's "Bride of the Monster).

Among the highlights:

Those who appreciate a good scare should check out tonight's 7:40 p.m. kickoff, director Tod Browning's 1931 take on that most celebrated of vampires, "Dracula."

Although it was a huge hit at the time and made an icon of Bela Lugosi, "Dracula" has not fared so well over the years. Some critics insist it's not scary enough, while others proclaim that Lugosi is too much of a ham to be taken seriously. Most agree the film pales in comparison to James Whale's "Frankenstein," which was released the same year.

But such criticisms denigrate "Dracula" unfairly. Certainly it wasn't as good as "Frankenstein," but few films released that year were (Oscar candidates included "East Lynne," "Skippy" and "Trader Horn" - seen any of them lately?) It's also true that Browning, one of the more bizarre directors of his time, had been responsible for better films, especially the ones he made with Lon Chaney during the 1920s. And it's likely Browning's enthusiasm for the film waned before it was completed; once the action moves from Transylvania to England, things grow a bit stodgy.

Still, "Dracula" is plenty creepy.

The opening, in which the unfortunate Renfield (Dwight Frye) finds his stagecoach accompanied by a huge bat as it races along a mountain road, set a sinister mood that portends much of the horror to come. Lugosi's first appearance, looking like he stepped off a Transylvanian wedding cake, must have given quite a start to 1931 moviegoers, most of whom were still getting used to sound films. And Renfield's encounters with the maids of Dracula are among the best scenes from any horror film of the period, especially since the lack of a musical soundtrack means viewers have no hint what's coming next, or how long the scene - and Renfield's terror - will last.

One can't-miss film is "King Kong" (Oct. 26, 7:30 p.m.), which is simply among the greatest movies ever made, with stop-motion animation that wasn't surpassed until George Lucas and "Star Wars."

The story of a giant monkey who goes ape for the first blonde he sees (Fay Wray), "King Kong" remains as thrilling today as it was when released in 1933. It's filled with images that have become pop-culture staples. And it's a wonderfully crafted film, with crisp dialogue (from screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, who was brought in to tighten up the script and work on the film's human relationships), tight editing by Ted Cheesman and a magnificent, bass-heavy score from Max Steiner.

On the negative side, there's the relentlessly wooden Bruce Cabot, who hardly makes a believable love interest. And there are those uncomfortable racial overtones, with the Great White Hunter running roughshod over the ignorant, unsophisticated natives - typical for adventure films of the '30s, but something filmmakers have fortunately outgrown since.

Still, it's hard not to be thrilled when that 30-foot ape first appears onscreen. Sixty-seven years after its release, Kong is still the king of movie monsters.

And for good, campy fun, it would be hard to do better than "Bride of the Monster," (tonight, 9:20 p.m.) which has befuddled audiences ever since its release in 1955. Like every film in director Edward M. Wood's canon, it's an astonishingly inept mess, as Bela Lugosi (ravaged by drugs and nearing the end of his life) plays a mad scientist with designs on the determinedly inert Loretta King.

Also like every movie Wood ever made, this one is relentlessly entertaining. "He had a real feel for cinema," says Standiford. "You want to watch it, and I've seen a lot of bad films that you don't want to watch."

Though not the most notorious of Wood's films (that honor goes to "Plan 9 From Outer Space"), "Bride of the Monster" does include one of his greatest scenes, as Lugosi "wrestles" with an obviously fake octopus. Legend has it Wood tied the beast's tentacles to Lugosi and told his star to wave his arms a lot.


Here's the festival's full schedule:

Tonight: "Dracula" (7:40 p.m., with an added screening at 2 p.m. Saturday) and "Bride of the Monster" (9:20 p.m., with an added screening at 2 p.m. Sunday).

Sept. 21: "Godzilla vs. Monster Zero" (7:30 p.m., with an added screening at 2 p.m. Sunday), followed by a second film from the Charles' archives.

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