Most people like a good horror film around Halloween. It’s the time of year for a good scare. But what kind of scare do you want…classic or modern? Do you prefer the gothic grand guignol of yesteryear or the deranged demons of today? Who’s cooler and creepier?
Just for clarity’s sake, we’ll draw the old vs. new line at 1978, with John Carpenter’s excellent Halloween being the start of the modern age of Horror. Everything before that (The B&W Universal monster films, the Hammer Studios films with Cushing and Lee, the Poe/Hawthorn adaptations with Vincent Price, etc.) are classic horror flicks.
Let’s start with the names of the monsters. In this category, you have to go with old Hollywood. They just had more of a flair for names. The Phantom, Count Orlock, the Hunchback. These are creepy names. Jason is not a monster’s name. Jason is the name of someone who looks for the Golden Fleece. You have to admit that Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman sound much more epic than Chucky, Freddy and Pinhead. (Sounds more like a monster version of the 3 Stooges.) Seriously, which is more intimidating…The Creature from the Black Lagoon or Michael Myers? You’d run if someone said the Golem was coming, but if someone said Mama or the Tall Man was coming, you’d stay in your seat and wonder what all the panic was about?
Then we come to film titles. This one is closer but you have to give the nod to new Hollywood. The modern titles are a little more fun. The classic titles are plain and simple… Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mummy, etc. I prefer the newer names, like a Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser. Child’s Play was particularly clever because it fits the premise of the film while also being the complete opposite of what was going on in the film. Chucky was not playing!
Now let’s talk about the actors who play the monsters. In this case, it’s no contest. The old horror icons take it hands down. Look at the famous horror stars of yesterday. Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney (Sr. & Jr.), Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, John Carradine…These guys were not just great horror stars, they were also excellent dramatic actors. Whether it was Lon Chaney Jr. in Of Mice & Men, Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Boris Karloff as the religious soldier in the Lost Patrol or John Carradine in Stagecoach, these guys had acting chops. There’s no need to go on about Christopher Lee’s resume since he’s still busy working today (the last survivor of the golden age of horror.) Even Bela Lugosi—who admittedly can be a ham—was a respected dramatic actor in his youth in Hungary. Frederick March won an Oscar for his role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Guys like Kane Hodder and Tyler Mane just can’t touch those legends. Of the modern stars, only Robert Englund has had a variety of roles, however, he seems to be content to remain in the horror genre. He hasn’t stretched himself to his full potential. (It’s true that Jackie Earl Haley played Freddie once, but one film doesn’t make a horror star.) Some people might think of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, but that was a psychological crime thriller, not a horror film per say.
And now, the SFX: Obviously, the special effects of the new films far exceed the old ones. Some might say this isn’t a fair comparison, since the top-notch FX of modern times didn’t exist in the old days. Regardless of the fact that the old time visuals were considered impressive in their day, nothing from the classic era can compare with eponymous beast of Alien or the monsters from Descent.
What about characterization? This category has to go to the classics. The old monsters could be both sympathetic and scary at the same time. You could feel sorry for the Frankenstein Monster’s fruitless quest for love and acceptance in a world that hates him. You could feel for the tormented Larry Talbot, who was living under a curse that turned him into a merciless monster under the full moon. Even Dracula, as evil as he was, could be cool, compelling, clever, classy and a snappy dresser. Most of the modern monsters are just killing machines with little or no personality or motivation. (In all the zombies movies that have come out lately, did you ever see a zombie with an interesting personality?) The semi-exception would be Freddy Kruger, since Robert Englund injects enough personality into Freddy and his morbid jokes to raise him above his modern peers. Still, at the end of the day, Freddy is simply an evil being who kills for fun. He’s more one-dimensional than Karloff’s lovelorn Imhotep of the Mummy. Even Mr. Hyde had the long-suffering Henry Jekyll to humanize him.
Now we get to the women of horror, also known as the ‘Scream Queens’. Here, you definitely have to go with the new ladies. Starting with Halloween, modern films have consistently given us resourceful women as the heroines and sole survivors of horror films. From Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie in Halloween, to Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien, and even the women spelunkers of the Descent, the modern ladies get the nod. The standard of the old scream queens, which started with Fay Wray (although Evelyn Ankers is known as the queen of Scream Queens) was mostly damsels-in-distress.
What about the meaning of the film or the moral of the story? Is there one in horror films? There was in the old films, which is why you have to give the thumbs up to the classics in this category. They had a subtext missing in most modern films. Frankenstein was a cautionary tale about the rapid advance of science, and consequence of playing God without thought to consequences or ramifications. The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde had similar morals. Mr. Hyde, like the Wolfman, touched upon the duality of human nature and the dangers of unleashing the evil within by erasing the veneer or morality and conscience. It’s hard to find a modern corollary. The exception would be the Carpenter Halloween films. In Halloween 2, Dr. Loomis gives a cool little speech, saying, “Samhain isn’t evil spirits. It isn’t goblins, ghosts or witches. It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.” It’s a similar notion to that of Wolfman and Mr. Hyde. But that film aside, most modern movies are simply horror movies—no more, no less. Fun and scary, but not deep.
Finally, we look at the good guys of horror. When you think of the opponents of famous ghouls, and best-known monster hunters, two names come to mind: One is Dr. Van Helsing, the bane of Dracula’s existence; and the other is Dr. Loomis, eternally in pursuit of Michael Myers. Both are great characters played by wonderful actors. Dr. Van Helsing was originally played by Edward Van Sloan but the ultimate, and most frequent portrayer of Dracula’s foe is Peter Cushing, best known to fans today as Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars. Cushing played Dr. Van Helsing five times (the Horror of Dracula, the Brides of Dracula, Dracula AD, 1972, the Satanic Rites of Dracula, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) and he gave consistently good performances as the stalwart professor, who was an expert on both blood and the occult. Donald Pleasence was equally good as the ever-desperate Dr. Loomis. You have to love Pleasence’s eccentric performance as the increasingly obsessed psychiatrist, always acting like an Ahab on the hunt for his white whale. How do you choose between these two? Let’s not. We’ll call this one a draw.
So, that’s our look at new and old monsters of film land. In the end, there’s no clear better-or-worse. It’s a matter of taste and preference. Monsters are fun, be it the Werewolf of London (1935) or the American Werewolf in London (1981). So this Halloween, just pick out your favorite—whether it’s old or new—and enjoy a good scare.