Why Classic Horror? A Conversation About Classic Films and Why They Still Matter

By: Brian Keiper

This is not a rant or a lecture. Or at least is not intended to be. Rather, this is the result of personal introspection on a question raised by a couple of recent incidents around the internet. The first was Martin Scorsese’s passionate plea that great films not be reduced to “content” but be seen as art. The second was a controversial thread on Twitter from an individual who had set a rule to never watch movies made before 1975. As is so often the case on the bird app, these tweets were met with passionate responses on all sides. But with a 280-character limit, there is little room for nuance of argument—a point that should be kept in mind before shelling out blanket judgement. I decidedly fall on one side of this argument. I have championed classic film in private life for as long as I can remember. Now, I write a monthly column on pre-1970’s horror films for this very website. Still, I felt it was important to examine my reasons for continuing to advocate these films. 

There are challenges involved in viewing classic horror and classic films in general. Styles of acting, language—both spoken and visual, and storytelling itself have evolved over time. This kind of evolution happens in all artforms. As language and conventions change, older works become more difficult for modern audiences. Though written in English, the writings of Chaucer seemed to be in a foreign language by the time of Shakespeare, much like Shakespeare’s works seem to many today. Fashions, conventions, beliefs, and attitudes shift over time, but the deepest core of our common humanity—loves, passions, and certainly fears—remain constant. Just as one needs to put in a certain amount of effort to understand and appreciate MacBeth, older films sometimes require a bit of work. But if we are willing, these films can yield great treasures. 

The first reason to explore these movies is it connects us to a heritage of film. Classic horror tells us a great deal about our forbearers, the good and the bad. We discover the hopes and wants of generations past captured in an unchanging moving image. The actors on the screen will live forever, eternally caught in a moment that is forever gone. There is a sort of magic to that. Film is a grand illusion unspooled at 24 frames per second. But despite their fictional nature, these movies reveal a great deal of truth as well. It would be a great shame to lose these historical documents of truth captured like an insect in amber. That is at the heart of Scorsese’s despairing of film being reduced to “content.”

For nearly half of its history, few saw film, particularly Hollywood movies, as an artform. For decades, movies were simply a commodity to be bought and sold. In times that film is not recognized as an important artform there is a lack of preservation and transmission to the detriment of future generations. Thousands of films, including all or part of widely revered films, have been lost forever. What classic film fans would give for a copy of Tod Browning’s London After Midnight to be discovered in some hidden vault, for example, not to mention the complete versions of Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed or even Orson Welles’ original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Whether or not the many films lost to fire, reclamation for their silver, or simply the ravages of time are even any good is beside the point. They are artifacts of a lost time that will never exist again. From an artistic and historical perspective, that is a tragedy.

Now, we are faced with a new problem, one that Scorsese tried to articulate before being shouted down by many as an elitist or an “old man yelling at clouds.” His plea was one of sadness and fear that we will lose our common heritage to whim. If we continue down the path we are on, certain films will, for all practical purposes, cease to exist when they become unavailable to stream. This is what is meant by film being reduced to “content” and, as in times past, mere commodity. If films are only valuable when they make money for a corporation, they are no longer being treated as art. Thankfully, many independent movie theaters and boutique Blu-ray companies are continuing to fight for film preservation. Also, several streaming services, websites, and certainly podcasts are dedicated to curation and discussion around a variety of movies to help keep films that would otherwise fall out of the conversation alive. I am personally thankful to dozens of resources like these that have helped me to discover excellent films I would have otherwise never even heard of. 

In many ways, we have classic films to thank for many of our modern favorites. Cinema itself is a massive web of influence and interconnected inspirations. John Carpenter, for example, was greatly influenced by Howard Hawks, both when he saw the movies as a child and later studied them in film school. George Romero loved Val Lewton and Hammer films which helped inspire several of his best. Of an earlier era, James Whale, director of FrankensteinThe Old Dark House, and The Invisible Man, was deeply affected by the German expressionists like Fritz Lang, Robert Weine, and F.W. Murnau. Then the films of Carpenter, Romero, and Craven among others in turn had a major influence on filmmakers like Tarantino and Rodriguez. Now we see a new generation influenced by them as well as those who came before. And on and on it goes. Cinema is far more interconnected with its history than we sometimes give it credit for. This heritage of influence is not only interesting or merely academic; it can also be a lot of fun to spot an element from a favorite modern film in a cinematic predecessor.

Second, classic films give us a connection with our collective humanity: the hopes, loves, and fears, which stretch back through the corridors of time. The post-war, post plague weariness of Veimar Germany stamps every frame of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). The Great Depression is seen in Dracula sucking his victims dry, the Frankenstein monster’s cadaverous face, and Fay Wray stealing an apple in King Kong (1933). The specter of World War II is hidden deep in the primal fears found in the films of the Val Lewton unit at RKO in the early 40’s. McCarthyism and Red Scare paranoia are all over the alien invasion films of the 50’s along with nuclear annihilation fears found in the giant bug and monster movies of the same era. In the 60’s and 70’s, the demons of the Vietnam War and racial oppression inhabit the zombies and maniacs that menace characters representing a weary nation. 

Economic collapse, war, xenophobia, racism, political corruption, widespread illness, and other problems of “the past” remain with us. They tap just as deeply into the heart of our human nature as any films made today, giving many of them an ongoing relevancy and a window into how these same obstacles were faced (or ignored) in times past. Though cultural contexts shift, the underlying struggles remain largely constant. The best horror films often come out of these times of great unease.

Ultimately, the movies make us aware of our own humanity and the humanity of others. This is not always pretty. For those of us who love horror, we are fascinated by the darkness, not so much to embrace it, but to understand how to face it. We look fear, hatred, and death in the eyes and see how to overcome. This is told in a thousand ways through a thousand stories old and new. The most skilled filmmakers not only teach us to stare into the darkness but face us with the reality that sometimes our own eyes are staring back at us. This has been true since before Caligari and is still true more than 100 years later. Great art remains great because of what it can tell us about ourselves, and the insights of the past can help us understand our present.

Finally, and perhaps above all these considerations, is the biggest reason we watch classic horror, or any movie for that matter—to be entertained. When it comes down to it, some form of enjoyment is what we want most from our movies. They may also move us emotionally, make us think, or share deep truths, but these are accomplished through storytelling and the skill of the filmmakers. Put another way, we come to Frankenstein for the rampaging monster, but stay for the pathos of Karloff’s portrayal of the creature. We come for Godzilla stomping Tokyo but stay for the insight into nuclear testing and its human toll. Because entertainment is such an important consideration, it ultimately makes the decisions of what kinds of films each of us consume very personal.

A complicated element of being entertained is the kinds of challenges inherent in watching older films I noted earlier. Personally, I like to be challenged by art. I find enjoyment in the struggle. Films that stretch me, be it because of form or content, are the films that matter most to me. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but if we want to grow and evolve as filmgoers (or as people), it will come more from challenge than comfort. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of comfort films I return to time and again. We all need that rest and reprieve, especially in difficult times. But if we seek to learn, stretch, and grow, we will need to step away from our comfort zones. It may start with just dipping in a toe, then wading out a bit, but eventually we will want to dive deep as we find whole new oceans of movies we never considered before.

This is not to say that classic films, or any films for that matter, are beyond criticism. They are products of a time and place and subject to the mores, beliefs, and prejudices of their makers, as are films of today. As has been evident even with relatively recent films, some movies age better than others. There are important films of quality that contain elements of questionable or outright appalling content. In most cases, these elements can be condemned without a need to discredit the entire film. Wholesale erasure seems to be the wrong move; it comes far too close to book banning (or burning) for my comfort. Instead, healthy discussion and robust debate are in order. Unfortunately, in an age of soundbites and tweets, this proves difficult.

This is also where the second Twitter controversy comes into play. I very much understand people choosing not to watch certain movies based on personalities involved or subject matter, but to base film choices upon a release year baffles me. And this goes both ways. I don’t understand only watching movies made after a certain date but also don’t understand why some would only watch movies made before a certain date. There are gems (and lumps of coal as well) to be found in all of cinema’s 120 plus years. To set such an arbitrary rule will likely only deprive a person from seeing what could become a favorite film. 

There is such a vast wealth of movies out there, it is sometimes difficult to even know where to begin. If this is you, I’d suggest getting your feet wet with the original Universal Monsters. These are the foundations of gothic horror that ruled the landscape for decades to come. Plus, most are only about 75 minutes long, making them a relatively minor time commitment and an accessible gateway. I personally followed these up with the Hammer adaptations of the same stories. Though they feature many of the same monsters, they are wildly different takes on them from the Universal films. From there, the subtle and suggestive films of the Val Lewton unit at RKO in the ‘40’s like Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), and The Body Snatcher (1945) are musts. I would also suggest Roger Corman’s lush and often elegant Edgar Allan Poe adaptations as well as the strange and wonderful low-budget exploitation films of William Castle. Wading a bit deeper, the German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariDer Golem, and Nosferatu are excellent entrées into silent film for horror fans.

When it comes to this question of why classic horror, whether you come to similar or opposite conclusions to mine is beside the point. The point is to ask the question. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual to decide whether they value these films or not. However, if I can encourage or persuade even one person to explore the rich heritage of horror or dip even a toe into this vast ocean, I will be deeply gratified.

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