Bela Lugosi’s Dead Good

Apparently, with the sixth about to be released in time for Halloween, the SAW series of films are now the most successful horror franchise…ever! As an aging horror buff I had expected to dismiss these films as sensationalist, or, even worse, derivative. But actually, from what I’ve seen (parts 1,2 & 3) they are interesting films that ask questions about morality and humanity while scaring you both wit and shitless. They are definitely a cut above the rest of the other ‘torture porn’ films which are so popular, if you’ll excuse the pun.
And I really believe that no other genre asks those questions in a more interesting way than horror when it is at its best. From Nosferatu (1922), to the better Hammer horrors right through to the classic films of the seventies and eighties which terrified me, such as The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978) and The Fly (1986), and beyond,great horror makes us face our demons in every sense. How successful the film is has nothing to do with how ‘hard’ it is in terms of visceral content. A good example would be the original Wicker Man (1973) (please, for your own sanity, have nothing to do with the abysmal 2006 remake).
Playing on man’s fears of an ungodly world and ancient pagan beliefs, The Wicker Man is not just one of the best horror films ever made, but simply one of the best films. It is genuinely unsettling in a way that a film such as Eli Roth’s recent Hostel (2005), which also places ‘innocents’ in an unfamiliar culture against their will, could never manage despite the buckets of blood. The horror of The Wicker Man unfolds mostly in broad daylight, and that simple decision is key to its success. It’s one thing to be afraid of the dark, but it’s really terrifying to feel you are not safe when the sun is up. If you haven’t seen The Wicker Man then here’s the trailer, but I urge you to see the whole thing, particularly if you have ever been exposed to organized religion at any point. It’ll disturb thoughts and fears you had thought long buried:

Another reason The Wicker Man stands out as unusual is that Scotland does not have a great tradition of horror movie making, with Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) being a notable exception, and this is perhaps odd as it has a great Gothic tradition in fiction. Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, George MacDonald have all written classic Gothic novels which changed, to a greater and lesser degree, the way fiction was written. Modern examples include John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints, James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack and Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die.

The best of the lot, and the only one who has been well served by cinema, is Robert Louis Stevenson. The greatest number of versions of a Stevenson tale are the numerous adaptations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, from the classic 1931 version starring Fredrich March to the bizarre Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971). One of the lesser known films, at least to me, is the 1945 adaptation of the Stevenson short story The Body Snatcher which stars Bela Lugosi in his most memorable role after Dracula, and perhaps his best. It certainly shows the man could act. This is particularly poignant when you consider the film also features that other iconic horror actor Boris Karloff who is underused, but perhaps with good reason when you see what he does with his time on screen. For fans of early classic horror, or of Stevenson, then this is a real joy, and it captures the fear and atmosphere of post ‘Burke and Hare’ Edinburgh perfectly. You can even forgive some of the accents.

Below is the trailer, which cheats a little in that it promotes the role of Karloff above his station, but it gives you a flavour of a very fine film:

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