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Black and white fright

Enjoy a retro Halloween by revisiting some classic horrors

While I'm a known film lover, I'm not the biggest fan of horror. I've seen many of the classics from each decade, but lost interest as the modern focus shifted toward gruesome and graphic torture.

After completing the American Film Institute's Top 100 list, I've branched off to explore different actors, directors and genres. A few months ago I thought of Universal's iconic group of monsters from the 1930's. I'd seen a few of them, but thought a proper reviewing would be fun with Halloween approaching. Each of the following films is available through the library.

They all spawned spin-offs, sequels, imitators and remakes, but I stuck with the classics. I initially chose "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "The Mummy," "The Invisible Man" and "The Wolfman." I later added "The Old Dark House," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and 1925's "The Phantom of the Opera."

I treated them as I did with the Top 100 list by first watching and then researching afterwards, so nothing was spoiled beforehand. Upon completion, I was surprised as to how I'd ranked them as compared to how I'd have expected.

"Dracula" probably fared the worst in that regard. Bela Lugosi is a good Dracula and the film has its moments, but I mostly enjoyed Dwight Frye's deranged Renfield.

"Frankenstein" did considerably better. The doctor's laboratory is the template for all that came after it and many of the scenes are wonderfully shot with a German influence that adds to the creepy atmosphere around the infamous grave robbers.

However, "The Bride of Frankenstein" is the better of the two. While not flawless, it benefits from both a better aura of danger from the monster and an increased sense of his warped humanity and vulnerability. Boris Karloff's monster is deadly, but I also felt sympathy when he's found living peacefully with the hermit.

"The Wolfman" is a hard one – it wasn't bad, but it also wasn't that good. This is the one which I have the least feelings for and while it was worth watching, it lacked something which I haven't quite put my finger on. There wasn't a lot of the Wolfman and when he was on-screen, he wasn't very active or frightening.

"Creature from the Black Lagoon" is from 1954, but he's considered one of Universal's classic monsters. The underwater photography was good and the creature looked great, but the musical theme is beaten into the ground and the film suffers for it. The ending was also illogical. They kill it, but then choose to not take the body for scientific proof even though it killed most of the crew and it's an incredible discovery.

"The Mummy" was one of my favorites. I hadn't realized Karloff wasn't just the classic image of a reanimated body wrapped in bandages, but that he'd been walking among people for decades dressed as a modern Egyptian as he learned a new language and a new world. For much of the time spent watching these films, "The Mummy" topped my list.

"The Phantom of the Opera" from 1925 was chosen over the 1943 version because the appearance of Lon Chaney's Phantom is far scarier than later incarnations. He's insane, but he becomes a tragic character after his origins are revealed. The brief colorized scene where he appears at a costume ball as The Red Death was my favorite.

"The Old Dark House" was unknown to me before hearing it mentioned in every special feature from the other films. This was the surprise of the group and it's also the most fun. For years this was essentially a lost film; its reputation has grown as a classic and deservedly so. It begins on a dark and stormy night and as it progresses it gets weirder, more menacing and it eventually goes off the rails in a wonderful way. Karloff is great as the beastly butler and the ending is enjoyably simple and abrupt. If I had to re-watch any of them, this would be my choice.

That leaves 1933's "The Invisible Man," which I'd place as the best of the bunch. Claude Rain's film debut is a fantastic performance, especially when considering that, except for the last few seconds, he's never shown. His vocal performance is one of the best ever; he's insane, dangerous and a frightening character. The script is well written and the technical achievements are significant. More than any other, the Invisible Man is the most complete and well-developed classic monster.

As Halloween approaches, many steer their viewing choices toward creepy favorites. I recommend going back a bit further than you typically might and visiting Hollywood's horror icons. They're worthy of their recognition and you'll see why they're classics.

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