Perhaps because I deal so closely with horror fandom and its peculiar “When did you first see Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man?” mindset that I find myself wondering about the way people tend to cling to their childhood through pop culture more often than I should. The whole business of wanting—or, worse, forcing—a thing to be the same to you as an adult as it was when you were nine years old seems kind of emotionally stunted to me, which is why I have never accepted the baby boomer accolade of being a “Monster Kid,” even though by definition I am one. I prefer to think I was one, but the idea of calling myself one at the age of 55 is something I reject.
Now, before you post-boomer folks start feeling all superior on this topic, I’ll note at once that I find undue reverence for 1980s pop culture an improvement in any way. Insisting that The Goonies (1985) is a great film because you loved it when you were a child strikes me as no better and possibly worse. There is, in fact, an interesting crossover right now with the two generations (or more, thanks to home video) as concerns the 1981 Clash of the Titans and the new one. Most boomers will concede that the 1981 film isn’t very good, but they like it because of the Ray Harryhausen effects that remind them of those halcyon days of childhood when they saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) or Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which were better movies with Harryhausen effects work. Those of you who saw the original Clash of the Titans when you were young simply tend to remember it as great.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with nostalgia in general or with nostalgia for your childhood in a specific sense. What I find troubling is the attempt to hoist films that generate fond childhood memories to a level of greatness that they rarely deserve in any useful sense. Childhood is not a time for much in the way of critical thinking. I have fond memories of seeing Jason and the Argonauts and First Men in the Moon (1964), but in all honesty I was just as happy with The Magic Sword (1962), Captain Sinbad (1963) and The Time Travelers (1964). I don’t recall anyone ever making a case for greatness where those last three are concerned, though I’ve revisited The Magic Sword and The Time Travelers (the latter having some extra points in fan circles for its cameo appearance by Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J Ackerman). I can see why I would have liked them as kid—and they’re still agreeable cheese—but I know they’re far from great. In some cases, they barely cross the line of adequacy. For anyone who didn’t see them as a kid, they probably never do.
When I first saw Bela Lugosi in The Ape Man (1943) I was probably nine or 10 years old. I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever seen. Hey, it’s got a monster (Lugosi stooped over with a lot of crepe hair stuck on him), a wisecracking newspaper reporter (Wallace Ford), a (somewhat threadbare) mad scientist lab (retorts, beakers, flasks and test-tubes are pretty exotic at that age) and it’s got a guy in a gorilla suit (Emil Van Horn). What’s not to love?
From an adult perspective, the make-up is laughably hokey, 43-year-old Wallace Ford is a slightly tubby and unlikely hero, and that gorilla suit is one of the worst in movie history. The screenplay is squarely between inane and insane. William Beaudine’s direction is…well, let’s say suitable to the material. Yes, Lugosi gives it his all (he rarely gave less) and is fascinating and the other performers are agreeable enough, but the movie is basically trash. I once thought it was terrific. I love it now because it’s amazing trash—not in the least because it strikes me as exactly the kind of movie a 10-year-old might make. Hell, I’ve bought it on DVD at least three times in search of a decent copy! (One of the problems with movies that have fallen into the public domain is that anybody with a beat-up, splicy 16mm dupe print can have it put onto a DVD and sell the copies.)
It is easier, I think, to find alternate reasons for still liking a childhood favorite if the movie in question was made for an adult audience. Presumably, even The Ape Man was made for adults, though its producer, the legendary Sam Katzman, once went on record as viewing his target audience as some kind of mental defectives, going so far as to opine that there must be “something wrong” with anyone who went to his movies. (Do you suppose Uwe Boll feels this way?) There is certainly a reasonable chance that you might have missed a good many adult themes and any amount of subtext when you saw a movie as a kid. I remember being shocked—and even a bit outraged—when film historian John Baxter asserted that Michael Curtiz’ Doctor X (1932) contained elements of rape and necrophilia. Well, I’d seen this movie when I was a child and thought he was obviously filled with the juice of the prune. Then I saw it again and, oh my, Baxter was right. But when I was 12, I wouldn’t have recognized these things if I’d tripped over them.
This, however, brings up another question—and one I’m not sure can be answered. It’s simply this: How much of this is rationalization? Are we sometimes reaching to find values in childhood favorites simply to justify still watching them as adults? Someone brought this up not long ago on the message boards I moderate and it’s a fair question. I can make a pretty good case for another Lugosi Monogrammer, Voodoo Man (1944), as parody of Hollywood’s notion of horror and as a send-up of fundamentalist theology.
The hero (Michael Ames) is a screenwriter who turns his experiences into a screenplay called The Voodoo Man and even suggests to his boss—called S.K to invoke Katzman, but played by John Ince rather than the real McKatzman, unfortunately—that he try to get Lugosi for the movie. Plus, every time the voodoo ceremonies don’t work right (which is most of the time), high priest—and gas station owner—George Zucco lays the blame on some external factor, never at the feet of the god itself (“Remember—Ramboona is all-powerful”). Faith healers have been known to make a similar argument. So my case isn’t exactly unsound, but it is rather silly to think that anyone involved in knocking off the seven-day-wonder had anything in mind other than 62 minutes of marketable Bela Lugosi horror picture.
At the same time, I’m pretty comfortable with the deeper readings I’ve given to James Whale’s horror pictures, Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) and Stuart Walker’s Werewolf of London (1935). But these are more ambitious works by more serious filmmakers and clearly were made for an adult audience. That as (shudder) “Monster Kids” we co-opted them doesn’t change that. That some bristle at the thought of viewing them as being any deeper than the way they saw them while wearing pajamas and trying to stay awake in front the family’s TV console on “Shock Theater” says more about them than it does about the movies. Still, I find the views of a certain horror historian (who will go unnamed) that he far prefers the poverty row George Zucco opus The Mad Monster (1942) to Universal’s classier The Wolf Man (1941) because it gets to the monster sooner refreshingly honest. (And that’s even granting that the monster it gets to is Glenn Strange in bib overalls with two fangs and some shaggy hair.)
I also find it interesting—at least among “Monster Kids” (I’ve no idea if it applies to any other generation)—to hold grudges formed in childhood against certain movies. Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) the perfet example. A lot of folks seem to dislike the film not for what it is, but for what it isn’t. The problem stems from the fact that there finally aren’t any vampires involved and that it’s all an elaborate—and utterly preposterous—charade to get a murderer to reveal his guilt. It’s silly, but it doesn’t keep the first 55 minutes of the 61 minute movie from being among the creepiest films of its genre. The distaste for it stems almost entirely from a childhood sense of “No vampires? What a gyp!”
By the same token, you’ll tend to find certain key classic horrors underrated in some quarters. Three immediately come to to mind—Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), Curtiz’ Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and T. Hayes Hunter’s The Ghoul (1933). What do these titles have in common? Well, apart from the first and the last having Boris Karloff as the star, they share only one thing—they were thought to be lost for years. And that little fact means that they weren’t part of the “Shock Theater” packages and aren’t part of my generation’s childhood. There’s no nostalgia clinging to them—at least not of the same kind—and this tends to make them be judged as inferior. For me, this actually raises the question of whether a lot fans are in love with classic horror or merely with their childhood. Think on that for awhile.