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The Good Old Fashioned Black And White Horror Film

Write out of L.A. contributing writer Desirae Embree delves into her classic old horror memories.

I grew up in a family of film lovers. When my brother and I were kids and my parents were still married, often the time we’d spend together as a family was after dinner, watching a movie in the living room. My parents are children of the 1970s, and so they have a particular affinity for the classics of their youth – Jaws, Alien, Halloween, Carrie. However, while these films have become important to me as an adult, what I remember most about Halloweens as a kid were the Vincent Price marathons on TCM. After I did my trick-or-treating and my older brother went off to cause trouble with his friends, my parents and I would make popcorn and settle in front of the TV for a few hours of spooky old classics.

My favorite of these old Vincent Price films was William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill (1959). It drew on all the usual gothic horror tropes: a strange millionaire and his wife invite a group of strangers to a “haunted house” party, and they promise a sum of money to whoever is left alive by the next morning. Locked in, the guests are terrorized by ghosts, murderers, and various dark forces both seen and unseen. Watching it now, the special effects are laughable, and the whole film has a slight camp feel to it. But the chiaroscuro lighting, the way that black and white film seems to heighten the sense of anxiety – these were genuinely scary to me as a little girl.

When remakes of these classics started coming out in the late 90s, I was underwhelmed. They offered pleasures that the old films didn’t, star recognition being one of the most obvious. But the gorey slasher updates never got under my skin the way that the The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) or The Innocents (1961) did. There is something about the violence that you don’t see, something about the thing that goes bump in the night but never reveals itself, that lends itself to a deeper, more existential fear than contemporary horror flicks usually inspire.

My appreciation for the terror in the understated has only grown deeper as I’ve gotten older, and I can follow the thread of my favorite childhood horror films all the way from my family’s living room to my academic interests now. I’m still watching old black and white spook shows, though now I do so with a critical eye toward the ways in which what scares us is deeply related to what turns us on. Clearly the sexual anxiety that saturates the horror genre wasn’t visible to me as a little girl, but one of the joys of studying film has been to go back to childhood favorites and find them newly relevant to my experiences as an adult.

This is what happened in my last year of undergrad when I watched The Haunting (1963) while writing a paper about heterosexuality, violence, and the gothic in film. On the surface, it’s a straight ghost story; an old mansion with a history of inexplicable violent deaths becomes a house of horrors for a group of strangers who have come to study it. But it was also something else – it was a story about repressed lesbian desire and the anxieties that undergird cinema’s insistence that a heterosexual couple be formed somewhere within the course of the narrative. The pleasures that The Haunting offered were twofold: the bodily pleasures associated with film spectatorship and the intellectual pleasures associated with film criticism. Like my earlier experiences with Vincent Price, it was a formative moment; I decided to go to graduate school to pursue film scholarship as a career.

There are any number of color horror films that, in their right, completely terrifying and worthy of watching. I’ve grown to be very fond of the Italian giallo films like Blood and Black Lace, with their stylish mix of color, sexuality, and gratuitous violence. The past few years have been a really exciting time for feminist fans of horror, as women filmmakers have begun to imagine the genre along less masculinist lines with films like The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It is, inarguably, a great moment in the history of the genre.

But there is just nothing like curling up on the couch and watching a black and white horror film. Do it right! Turn off all of the lights, turn the volume up, and hope that the hand you’re holding in the dark belongs to who you think it does…

Desirae (@ZeeSayre) has her own site here and also writes some unmissable stuff for Pop Matters.


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