Cinema Gothic: The 1950s

The original Universal horror series that followed the stories of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man concluded in the late 1940s. The 1950s saw a rebirth of horror. Universal ventured into new waters with The Creature from the Black Lagoon, while a small studio in England began reinventing the characters that had made Universal great for a new generation.

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

Director: Jack Arnold. Screenplay: Henry Essex and Arthur A. Ross. Starring: Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Ben Chapman, Ricou Browning. Studio: Universal. Country: USA.

Universal, fresh from exhausting its original monster lineup, started anew with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. With some beautiful underwater scenes, there are some obvious nods to the recurring theme of the romantic interest of an animal in a human female, something that has played out time after time in earlier classics like Murders in the Rue Morgue and King Kong. The film also, however, explores themes far ahead of it time in the 1950s, such as mankind’s effect on the environment. Originally shown in 3D, a new, restored Blu-Ray edition has replicated that format for capable players.

Diabolique (1955)

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot. Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi. Based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Boileau-Narcejac. Starring: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel. Country: France.

A stylish film in the European tradition, Diabolique is a murder mystery (or is it?), and paranormal (or is it?) tale that leaves the audience figuring out the clues until the twist ending that reveals all. The favorite film of Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, this film also was an inspiration to Hitchcock in his decision to shoot the film version of Psycho in black and white. Today, well recognized as a marvel of the genre and given a Criterion Collection release, Diabolique is an intriguing thriller in the best sense of the term.

Night of the Demon (1957)

Director: Jacques Tourneur. Screenplay: Charles Bennett. Based on the story “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James. Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis. Studio: Columbia. Country: United Kingdom.

I feel bad for putting three films by Jacques Tourneur on my list, but the man simply knew how to put together a well-placed, atmospheric horror film better than anyone else in his generation. To our great misfortune, with this effort he did not have a producer like long-time supporter Val Lewton behind him. Tourneur fought hard to never include footage of the story’s “demon,” however producer Hal E. Chester had footage of a demon shot and inserted, anyhow; the general consensus nowadays reflects poorly on Chester’s decision for those two scenes, siding with Tourneur’s original vision. However, the film overcomes these obstacles and has some truly chilling moments. Rarely is a hand landing on a bannister so anxiety-inducing as here. Tourneur’s pacing, heightened by strong performances by Andrews, Cummings, and MacGinnis, create a chilling and thought-provoking thriller that once again, in the director’s usual fashion, probes the question of belief in the supernatural and, in this case, demonic. The film was released in the United States as Curse of the Demon, cut from 96 minutes to 81. While nothing major is cut and the shorter edit is still worthwhile, the original British version is the more complete and enjoyable.

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Director: Freddie Francis. Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster. Based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Starring: Christopher Lee,  Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Carol Marsh. Studio: Hammer. Country: United Kingdom.

Hammer Studios had already launched a reinvention of Frankenstein by 1958, but it was their rebirth of Dracula that really made waves. For the first time on film, Dracula was in color, which meant that his victims bled red, red blood. Stylish and lavish, this version of the story is an adventuresome romp, even though it departs greatly from the novel. With notably strong performances from Lee, Cushing, and Gough, this cast plays off each other remarkably well. Lee’s Dracula is more physically strong, less supernatural, and is thus threatening in a different way than that of Lugosi. Lee would go on to portray Dracula in many more films, but this is the one to see.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Director: William Castle. Screenplay: Rob White. Starring: Vincent Price, Carolyn Craig, Elisha Cook. Studio: William Castle Productions. Country: USA.

This picture has a thousand problems, but being boring isn’t one. William Castle was never subtle, which is what makes this film filled with ghosts, gimmicks, flying skeletons, and more so fun. Highlighted by Vincent Price’s chilling, scenery-chewing performance, this is still one of the primary models for the “people locked overnight in a haunted house” subgenre, and it has rarely played more fun. Don’t confuse this for the 1999 remake, which is abysmal (and, more importantly, it doesn’t have Vincent Price).

(Cover image: a still from Creature from the Black Lagoon)