When I was a teenager learning to love movies and soaking up everything I could once or twice a week at the Alger Theater in Lakeview, Oregon, my friends and I, proud subscribers to Famous Monsters of Filmland, The Monster Times and the relatively sophisticated Castle of Frankenstein (“sophisticated” here meaning, every so often they showed stills of bare breasts from an R-rated Hammer film), looked forward to all the major holidays—Halloween, the occasional Friday the 13th, and, of course, New Year’s Eve. On these nights, Mr. Alger, the theater’s dry-humored proprietor, brought to the silver screen in our hometown special programs of current or semi-current horror films culled from the stables of American International Pictures, Hammer Studios, Amicus Films, and sometimes something even further off the exploitation path, but nothing too outré— a werewolf biker movie, or perhaps a crummy thriller from Crown International like Nightmare In Wax, starring Cameron Mitchell. If we were lucky, we’d even get a double feature-- Countess Dracula and Vampire Circus is one that leaps to mind. These horror film holidays were always great nights to gather up your friends and get scared, and the movies, no matter how decrepit or low-rent, always managed to offer a chill or two. And on New Year’s Eve, the program would never go past midnight, but oftentimes it came close enough that the evening’s last thrill involved racing home and making it inside before the new year was ushered in without you seeing the ball drop for yourself—on TV, of course.
Turner Classic Movies taps a little of that horror film holiday spirit December 31 with “The End Is Near!” a series designed to exorcise your worst fears (or at least provide you a good, safe place to wallow in them) before the new year ever dawns. Though the title conjures specifically apocalyptic imagery, most of the films on tap are of a more personal scale, depicting (in a couple of instances, quite literally) the seeds of global apocalypse in their earliest stages of development. Whether or not the end, being so near, actually comes is left up to the wile of the protagonists, the whims of fate, and sheer luckless happenstance.
My old neighborhood, Beachwood Canyon, just below the Hollywood sign, passes for the besieged (and fictitious) Santa Mira, California, in this amazing shot from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The fear fest kicks off at 5:00 pm (PST) with Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is a science fiction classic that retains its peerless power to generate existential terror despite being successfully remade by the likes of Philip Kaufman (1978) and Abel Ferrara (1993), and it’s Exhibit “A” in the case for horror and science fiction being among the most adaptable genres when it comes to social critique and metaphorical potency.
Following at 6:30 pm (PST) is director Val Guest’s The Quatermass Xperiment. Known in the United States as The Creeping Unknown, this was Hammer Films’ first international hit, starring Brian Donlevy as British scientist Bernard Quatermass, who leads an expedition to unearth the deadly secrets behind a downed spacecraft, including the reason why the lone survivor of the doomed mission is undergoing a mysterious and life-threatening mutation. Quatermass is relatively restrained in its style and effects, unlike the increasing lurid and gruesome films in which Hammer would come to specialize in the wake of Quatermass’s success, but that restraint is integral to the movie’s mounting sense of dread as it slowly reveals its horrors.
Prime New Year’s Eve Time, 8:00 pm, is reserved for Christian Nyby’s (and Howard Hawks’) The Thing (From Another World), an excellent compliment to the claustrophobic fear generated by the The Quatermass Xperiment. A quick look back at the first three films in Turner’s horror holiday apocalypse-a-thon now reveals a pattern of a much more rarified taste in terror than we were usually exposed to at the Alger Theater when we dared peek between our fingers. But in the case of “The End Is Near!” quality, style and restraint are certainly no barriers to success in terms of frightening New Year’s Eve fare (and if you’re looking for a werewolf biker movie, or even one in which Ingrid Pitt steps naked out of a life-regenerating blood bath, Turner Classic Movies is probably not going to be much help anyway.)
Things get a bit more curdled on the quality scale as we move into our fourth and fifth features, excellent drive-in fare both, but both also definite come-downs from the standard set by the opening three. Showing at 9:30 pm, Director Jack Arnold’s moody, evocative, Theremin-laced It Came from Outer Space isn’t particularly distinctive as a film, but, as Turner’s Jeff Stafford points out, it is a seminal science fiction film that would launch the careers of many key figures in the genre, including Arnold’s (he would go on to direct The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and the brilliant The Incredible Shrinking Man). It would also be Ray Bradbury’s first work as a screenwriter, and it was Universal’s first foray into 3-D-- though the print being shown on TCM is decidedly flat, instances of the director’s attempts to utilize the format by hurling burning asteroids at the audience are still fun to see.
Even less sound as a piece of narrative, The Blob, screening at 11:00 pm, still rates as worthwhile monster fare based on its archetypal 1950s sci-fi structure, its campy acting, the inventive shoestring special effects, an early appearance by soon-to-be screen star Steve McQueen, and that iconic scene of the Blob oozing its way through a movie theater just like the one you’re sitting in right now! (Don’t let the fact that you’ll be watching it at home bother you—the Blob attacks a house or two as well, if memory serves. And, don’t forget, this is the one with which you’ll be ringing in the new year…)
The TCM fright marathon caps off at half past the first hour of 2006 (12:30 am) with the 1960 shocker Village of the Damned, a chilling classic designed to make all well-meaning parents second-guess the choice to procreate. John Carpenter successfully carved out his own screen classic by remaking The Thing (From Another World) (and hewing closer to the original short story in the process), but he was much less successful in 1995 reimagining this particular bit of fright film history. The original Village of the Damned remains the seminal scary kid movie, one to which The Omen, The Boys from Brazil and scores of other similarly tot-phobic films can trace back the roots of their own toddler terror.
Assuming you’re not either completely freaked out or fast asleep by this point, TCM extends the fear factor for one more hour at 2:00 am with the original documentary, written and directed by Richard Schickel, entitled Watch the Skies, featuring interviews with Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and others in a consideration of the history of the science-fiction film, in particular the invasion variety. If you’re looking for a hands-off way to ring in 2006 with as much paranoia and clammy skin as possible, Turner Classic Movies promises to be a very welcome guest in your TV room on New Year’s Eve.
But, of course, if you’re like me and you tend toward programming your own fare on such occasions, you may decide that even TCM can’t trump your own fevered imagination when it comes to home theater-style revival house horror. For instance, a one-from-every-column New Year’s night of horror at my house might include a couple from the Universal vaults (say, James Whale’s clever and unsettling The Invisible Man, and from the studio’s excellent selection of ‘50s sci-fi, I’ve always favored the aforementioned The Incredible Shrinking Man or Tarantula), something from the Hammer crypt (Plague of the Zombies is straight out of the studio’s top mausoleum drawer), a dollop of American International (The Masque of the Red Death from the Corman stable, and perhaps Count Yorga Vampire from the company’s vital early ‘70s period), a smidgen of Amicus (can’t go wrong with Tales from the Crypt, but I might also seek out the lesser-seen Asylum), and then perhaps something along the lines of Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine, or perhaps something fairly disreputable, like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. After a marathon like that, what lies ahead in 2006 would almost have to be sunnier. Right?