If there are no monster movies on TV, you need to surround yourself with monster movie books, don’t you?
I grew up in an age when there were just three television channels in the UK. Aeon-long days would creak by with nothing on, or at any rate, no deformed freaks of nature menacing the nation, unless you counted Jimmy Savile. Unseen people called schedulers (I have yet to see one), moving in ways more mysterious than God’s, would then put two Ray Harryhausen movies on opposite channels at the same time. And the stronger stuff, the Universal and Hammer films, were always past bedtime, but if I was very lucky, I might be allowed to stay up to see Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, my Dad assigned to watch over me and intervene at the first sign of trauma.
It just wasn’t enough, these intermittent doses of monsterdom (Saturday late night double features in the summer were waited for all year round). So monster books scratched the itch, as well as providing glimpses of peculiar pleasures no scheduler seemed even aware of: Philippino vampire movies, Japanese knock-offs of Edgar Allan Poe, Godzilla and all his assorted tag-team cryptids. Thumbing the pages of big library books (not till later did I own any of these) I feasted my eyes, glutted my soul on their accursed (but blessed!) ugliness.
The king of all these books was a putrid green tome called A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, by Denis Gifford. Gifford was an expert in two subjects, it seems, horror movies and British comic books. The latter subject interested me only in so far as a publication called Shiver ‘n’ Shake depicted comedic versions of horror movie characters: thin gruel, but still monstrous and therefore OK (the real glamour was in US comics, particularly Marvel). As for the movies, Gifford had undoubtedly seen a lot, including perhaps movies like The Terror (1928) and The Cat Creeps (1930), now lost to time, but his books jumbled images willy-nilly, including stuff probably even the author hadn’t viewed. Part of the book’s incredible exoticism lay in the thought that these movies existed, that they might, somehow, be seen — and with that desperate hope, the suspicion that perhaps they couldn’t, that perhaps schedulers, even more solicitous and powerful than parents, would always contrive to protect me from Horrors of Malformed Men (1969) and Saint George and the Seven Curses (1961), goddamn it.
So a couple of years ago, reveling in the new age of availability, when any movie not altogether destroyed can probably be viewed, through one avenue or another, I decided to see every film Gifford had chosen to include a picture from. The lost films can only be seen in dreams, or by channeling their essence into new movies, like Guy Maddin is doing, but most of the rest have fallen into my hands and been eagerly consumed, from House of Horrors (1946), with the genuinely disfigured Rondo Hatton, to The Monster Maker (1944), with disturbingly lumpy mock-acromegaly by Citizen Kane makeup artist Maurice Seiderman. Some of my discoveries have been putrid: Pharoah’s Curse (1956) sucks so hard my plasma screen turned concave, and The Man in Half Moon Street (1944) is even duller than the Hammer remake: I’ve yet to make it through a sitting, and the fact that I’ve sworn I will adds a wearisome sense of duty. But many of my discoveries have been pleasant: The Monster and the Girl (1940) surpasses its generic title and its hokey gorilla costume and got me fired up about director Stuart Heisler; Raoul Walsh’s The Monkey Talks (1927) is a stunning oddity full of melodrama and pathos, and Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942) was just one of a range of mad scientist films from the era that really delivered. Most of the others starred Karloff, felt interchangeable even while they were on, but delighted my nine-year-old soul.
Here are a few that have so far escaped my clutches:
Balaoo, the Demon Baboon (France, 1913). Apparently a fragment of this survives in an archive in Canada.
The Exploits of Elaine (1915), an adventure serial which qualified for inclusion due to a cameo by Jekyll and Hyde.
Castle Sinister (Britain, 1948) from the annus mirabilis of British movie-making, a film that is never, ever mentioned.
Are they lurking in your collection?
Another unviewed film is the Danish dinosaur epic Reptilicus. Since I named my strange quest See Reptilicus and Die, I feel I have to save that one to last.
by David Cairns