Nightmares in Black & White

From now until Halloween night fright film fans ought to be in their peculiar heaven.

These next two weeks niche-specific broadcasters ought to be running every horror, thriller, monster movie ever churned out. Thanks to several hundred over the air, cable, and streaming channels, no movie filmed intended to send spine-tingling chills won’t get its chance to scare or amuse or astound audiences and aficionados.

Certainly the more popular, most recent Halloween flicks will be shown with frequency across a band of viewing portals. Unfortunately, that’ll consign many older, more obscure efforts to inconvenient hours.

Frankly there’s a reason some of lesser known Halloween films are just that. Poverty budgets, bad acting made worse through the fewest takes possible, and scripts that gave up coherence in the first reel make such movies perfect for sponsoring by cheesy local advertisers. Not like anyone awake at 3 or 4 in the morning will be a stickler for flow and continuity anyway.

More sophisticated as we’ve become, okay, more consumer driven as we are, it’d too bad we understand less, if any, of what Halloween signifies.

The pagans gave us a splendidly timed holiday. Looking at the season as agrarian societies once did, it arrives after harvest. Death now crowds the cycle of life stage.

Fields are fallow. Trees are barren. There’s more than a nip in the air presaging winter’s sharpness. The sun rises lower in the sky and brightens horizons fewer hours. Night, of course, descends sooner and lasts longer. Doesn’t cold also make these hours darker?

In ancient times, what conditions wouldn’t have better summoned spirits released from flesh and wandering throughout ethereal realms? With abundant life so recently reaped, these apparitions at the time ought have been regarded with greater poignancy or power than those months of the aptly titled Dead of Winter.

What finer hours to honor and memorialize those who’ve gone on when the freshness and snap of life yet firmly lingers?

Now we’ve done a masterful job of perverting All Hallow’s Eve original intent.

The sweets bestowed upon our trick-or-treaters earlier signified favorite bites of the departed. Not only did these sustain them in the world beyond, it also maintained connection between the two planes. Though not present the deceased still occupied places among the living. They hadn’t been forgotten. They were missed.

Long before rational man made everything under the sun, moon, and stars plausibly explicable, superstition, reasoning out the supernatural through mortal prisms, a state which exercised wisdom, sufficed. One knew what one saw. Or heard.

Or sensed.

Beyond that the unaccountable lent itself to and rewarded imagination and glibness. These occasions provided the opportunities to instill lessons, modify behavior, as well as promote order.

Naturally the most incisive lesson Halloween films imparted was transgression always brings punishment.

In less complicated times, when authority of all sorts seldom faced questioning and that nearly apologetic, audiences easily swallowed the mantras “justice traps the guilty” and “crime must pay.” Who knew any better? Unlike now injustice was accepted as routine.

We hadn’t learned that deviation was sometimes necessary to reach the truth. But that is a theme for a later post. This one is about chiaroscuro fantasies. The kind that after decades may yet illuminate us from within.

During my New York boyhood, horror movies were a Saturday night television staple. Always black and white, often badly edited for commercial breaks then formatted to squeeze onto TV screens, a good many managed to enthrall. Lacking advanced special effects, the kind which distract jaded movie-goers’ attention from the plots, they engaged through subliminal methods and suggestion.

Oh, and spooky music, too.

Blood didn’t spurt or gush back then. Entrails weren’t ripped out from body cavities and displayed to the victim. At least not on screen. Present-day moviemaking has made reaction shots a lost art. Coarsened as audiences have become, we’ve lost the ability to allow our inner eyes to produce worse, more vivid horrors.

Because what we may anticipate can always surpass the torment given.

Much dread can be inferred through the interplays of light and shadow – and the gradients in between; the sound of a turn of a screw can wordlessly indicate a character’s tension. Oddly, one might’ve expected interwar movies to have been brimming with gore and blood. The Great War delivered immense carnage. It could’ve been supposed that after four years of industrialized killing those who’d participated in the conflict or had witnessed it should’ve lost a lot of the gentility held before the outbreak of that war.

If the Great War is recalled at all in our time, we remember it in monochrome. And thanks to silent film era’s film speed the figures herked and jerked. Then movies unspooled at 16 frames per second. Today it’s a smooth 24. Unaware of the discrepancy some unknowing current viewers might suspect the living were also victims of those afflictions of the undead back then.

Tinkering with projection speeds and colorization have made the epoch more accessible to generations solely raised on Kodachrome and watching programs on color screens. Yet the improvements detract for what had been acknowledged as the truest representation for the longest.

Color and graceful movements soften the war’s brutality.

The notion that some subjects were to be off-limits among polite society and ladies after the Great War remains quaint even into the 21st century. Somehow armed strife had remained noble throughout all the previous wars leading up to the 1914-18 conflagration. As if the laurel Mars set upon the fallen valiant’s head awarded greater valor since arrows or swords had cut him down.

Glorious sacrifice indoctrinated pre-Great War populations. Conveyor belt massacre quickly dashed that notion.
Nobody foresaw the Great War’s slaughter through battlefield innovations. The meat was unprepared for the grinder. Four years of incessant slaughter dislodged and disposed of martial romanticism forever.

Artists and writers who’d served the trenches or in the skies above Europe roamed wildly in their illustrations or descriptions of terrors onto canvas or paper. Summoning inspiration unnecessary. All they needed was remembering. Only the movies were reluctant. Fluid as celluloid is it could’ve trenchantly related horrors as well as the interior anguishes veterans of all sides shared.

Moviemakers then kept war films nearly bloodless. They were so sanitary we today can see them as nearly antiseptic. Moreover, scant few were produced during the 20-year interwar period.

Consensus may’ve been real life had been too gruesome.

Perhaps what people had shown themselves capable of was too frightening. After all, who wanted to imagine any neighborhood veterans repeatedly bayonetting an enemy or whose marksmanship had turned a foe’s head into mist?

So, let surrogate creations stand in for a mankind that had thoroughly debased itself.

Conjured frights bumptiously released from imposed for all eternity imprisonments, ancient curses renewed then fulfilled by witless skeptics, and the disturbance of mysterious tribes replaced vicious events of 1914-18 on movie screens. Distance from recent reality as these fictions provided, never forget it was always then modern men who ignored the omens and warnings against breaching the seals between safety and danger, good and evil.

On screen, viewers beheld updated versions of Pandora’s plight. In real life it had been rampant technology which had ravaged humanity.

Moviemakers then seemed of two minds. The first wanted to show how mankind had succumbed to that which had been kept repressed in polite society. Second, despite the length and depths traveled in fantasy, any reckoning needed resolving in the nonetheless accepted manner. Wild, extravagant, salacious detours into the inhuman or beastly condition aside, the transgressor must return to the fold, repentant, prepared to atone, or forfeit his life.

Willfully ignoring the past carnage as they did, moviemakers sought to assure audiences remnants of the old virtues still held sway. No. It would take World War II and the “Red Menace” before filmmakers and society realized all the genteel strictures had been erased once and for all.