Re: Creeps

These are challenging times for the horror movie fan. The dominance of digital technology has larded the genre with tons o’titles no one in their right mind could ever get around to seeing; meanwhile, plenty of big studio and mid-sized horror continues to gush through the locks… and I find myself propelled ever more backwards, backwards, backwards. I’ve developed a fetish for early sound and silent horror… the primitive, the chalky, the chiaroscuro, the unforgettable. Awaiting delivery of Jonathan Rigby’s Studies in Terror: Landmarks in Horror Cinema  (Signum Books, 2012), I reread his earlier American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema (Reynolds & Hearn, Ltd., 2007), which details the employment of grotesque, arabesque and evermore curioso themes in American films from the first nickelodeon flickerings through to the horror-science fiction hybrids that were all the rage before the United Kingdom’s Hammer Studios rebooted Gothic shocks with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). If ever a print book demanded hyperlinks, it would be American Gothic, particularly for its early chapters on silent horrors. While I read the book cover-to-cover the first time, this time I paused to research interesting titles on the Internet to see if any might be viewable in any form. Most weren’t but some were and it was very gratifying to augment my reading with parallel studies of my own. In so doing, I began to think about the use of creeps in old horror movies… shadow figures who haunt the periphery, either to frighten or kill off the normals or to be used for some occult purpose. Think The Bat in THE BAT (1926) or The Cat in THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) or even Cesare the Somnombulist in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919)… you know, skulking characters of questionable motive and infernal design. Those guys. 

One of the most famous movie creeps comes from a literary source. I speak, natürlich, of Mr. Hyde, the dark half of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and one of the first so-called horror novels (though no one reading it in its day would have thought of it as such) to be adapted for films. Now, I know what you’re thinking… “Edward Hyde is so much more than a creep” and yes, I agree. I guess now is as good a time as any to define my terms. When I call a movie character a creep, I speak principally of the qualities they have before we find out what is really going on with them, when they are just, you know, creeping about, half seen and double feared. So, yeah, Hyde is ultimately revealed to be Jekyll’s unfettered Id personified and The Cat and the Bat are both unmasked as money-hungrey schemers without any true supernatural abilities. And Cesare is exposed, by the story’s resolution, as the fabrication of a paranoiac’s delusions. But before that, before we find out… aren’t they great?

Ambrose Bierce, in compiling The Devil’s Dictionary, defined a hag as “an elderly lady whom you do not happen to like” and I’d say society has the same angle on creeps. The word is used more often than not to describe an undesirable male who has exhibited a level of interest in a woman (though there are, of course, gay creeps, too) that she is unwilling or unable to reciprocate. In TAXI DRIVER (1976), Travis Bickle is a creep until he wastes a couple of dudes and saves a pre-teen prostitute, after which he becomes a hero and Cybil Shepard starts giving him the come-hither look. Having made his bones playing a child killer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Peter Lorre emigrated to America to build a career out of playing creeps — Dr. Gogol in MAD LOVE (1935), the title role in THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940), Joel Cairo in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) –  who manifested unsettling behavior and nursed a profane To Do list. The same is true of American actor Dwight Frye, most famous for playing the fly-eating Renfield in DRACULA (1931) and the crookbacked Fritz in FRANKENSTEIN (1931) but equally creepy as a murderous idiot in THE DEVIL BAT (1933), a murderous trapeze artist in THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER (1933) and murderous henchmen in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and DEAD MEN WALK (1943). As stated, creepy though they may be in their early scenes, all of these characters reveal themselves in the fullness of their respective contexts as something more than mere creeps, as felons, kidnappers and killers.

I suppose that quasi-sexual connotation plays into my definition of creep. I first became aware of creeps not from the movies in which they appeared but in pictures from the movies in which they appeared, illustrations published in such seminal genre overviews as Carlos Clarens’ Horror Movies: An Illustrated History Horror (GP Putnam & Sons, 1967) and Ivan Butler’s The Horror Film (Zwemmer-Barnes, 1967; revised as Horror in the Cinema, 1970). At that time, I had had my curiosity about horror films piqued but not sated and I was up for anything. I knew nothing and so looking at stills from Roland West’s THE MONSTER (1925) or Tod Browning’s LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), I had no real idea what Lon Chaney wanted to do with the women he was slavering over in creep mode but I knew it wasn’t good. I think I understood, intuitively, that it wasn’t just murder but something far darker, far more horrible. I felt the same way about the masked killers in Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY and West’s THE BAT and its sound remake THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) I knew this to be especially true about Cesare in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, whose mouth looked like the yawning maw of a snake about to devour its prey whole. I feared these figures not for their actual crimes (of which I was wholly ignorant — I hadn’t yet seen the movies they starred in) but for the potential of everything horrible my little mind could imagine and for everything beyond my capacity to imagine. And it is there, I believe, in that back bedroom of the brain, where thoughts don’t connect or coalesce into anything substantive but rather jerk and dance and arc in the air like severed and sparking electrical wires, that the Creep abides forever.

Because I’m old school, I like my creeps to look a little tumbledown, a little draggletail, a little tatterdemalion. Screwy hair is a must, hillbilly teeth encouraged, and a big old dumb hat is always welcome. I prefer my creeps to look like a guy who pulled his costume together from out of an attic trunk — like this blighter on the right. (This particular still was the cause of endless speculation amongst the horrorati over the years, with the accepted wisdom being for quite a while it was a publicity shot from Rupert Julian’s lost 1930 film THE CAT CREEPS… but the understanding now is that the subject here is Fredric March in Wally Westmore’s test makeup for Rouben Mamoulian’s Academy Award-winning 1932 adaptation of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE.) I think my late life preference has more to do with simple nostalgia for the films that fired my imagination back in the early 70s… I think it has everything to do with what has happened to creeps in the intervening years. Silent but deadly stalkers like those mentioned above have yielded to gabby bogies like Freddy Kruger in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) and its sequels, to Hannibal Lector in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) and its related prequels and sequels, and Jigsaw in the SAW franchise (2004-20009). I know these fellows have their admirers but for me they just never shut up. Talk talk talk talk talk and more talk. You’re never even allowed to wonder anything about these guys because they tell you everything, like regulars of some horribly sincere encounter group. If these movies didn’t pump up the jam with graphic violence every eight minutes they would be unwatchable.

All of this puts me in a weird place. In denigrating contemporary horror movies in which I find very little to admire (or even remember 24 hours later), I seem to be advocating older genre fare that never actually existed but was instead cobbled together in my brain from looking at pictures of movies I hadn’t seen. I guess all this is about the quality of wonder that existed in the world once and may never again, at least not in the technically-savvy west, where we are ever more prodded by gadgets, gizmos, add-ons and apps. I think my newish (but in many ways hardwired) preference for silent spookshows and my fondness for creeps — for black cloaks and slouch hats and buggy eyes and fright wigs — is bound to the way I came to the genre, with exquisite slowness and lots of room to wonder. This sense of childlike awe has created for me the perfect nightmare head space, a place to which I enjoy returning as I grow older and draw closer to my own appointment with the clutching hand.

0 Response Re: Creeps
Posted By John Armstrong : March 2, 2012 6:33 pm

I think there’s still a fair amount of creepy horror, though maybe not so many “creeps”. Yes, slasher and torture-porn films have sort of taken over the genre, but look at The Woman in Black or Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark for some that aren’t like that.

Posted By John Armstrong : March 2, 2012 6:33 pm

I think there’s still a fair amount of creepy horror, though maybe not so many “creeps”. Yes, slasher and torture-porn films have sort of taken over the genre, but look at The Woman in Black or Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark for some that aren’t like that.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 2, 2012 6:44 pm

I haven’t seen The Woman in Black and want to but, ugh, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark bored me to tears. And for the record, I’m not looking for creepiness so much as literal creeps. Maybe a remake of The Bat is in order.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 2, 2012 6:44 pm

I haven’t seen The Woman in Black and want to but, ugh, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark bored me to tears. And for the record, I’m not looking for creepiness so much as literal creeps. Maybe a remake of The Bat is in order.

Posted By Dan Day, Jr. : March 2, 2012 8:59 pm

I just finished Jonathan Rigby’s new book and it is a must read. A great follow-up to “English Gothic” and “American Gothic”.

Posted By Dan Day, Jr. : March 2, 2012 8:59 pm

I just finished Jonathan Rigby’s new book and it is a must read. A great follow-up to “English Gothic” and “American Gothic”.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 3, 2012 1:27 am

I love The Bat, that would make a great candidate for a remake, as long as they keep it restrained. And somehow find a new Agnes Moorehead.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 3, 2012 1:27 am

I love The Bat, that would make a great candidate for a remake, as long as they keep it restrained. And somehow find a new Agnes Moorehead.

Posted By Juana Maria : March 3, 2012 9:02 pm

I haven’t watched the films mentioned by John Armstrong and probably won’t. I have to say they did a really good job on special effects back in the day. I think Rick Baker would be so proud of these make-up jobs, don’t you?

Posted By Juana Maria : March 3, 2012 9:02 pm

I haven’t watched the films mentioned by John Armstrong and probably won’t. I have to say they did a really good job on special effects back in the day. I think Rick Baker would be so proud of these make-up jobs, don’t you?

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 9, 2012 11:07 am

A nice look at the classic “creep.” I especially agree with you on the glut of chat we’ve had to put up with from their modern counterparts. I’ll be damned if I can find the time to read AMERICAN GOTHIC, which I misplaced for a few months (I have a Stephen King-like apartment which sometimes swallows books…for a while), but what I’ve read I enjoyed. I have his new book which, based on a quick scan, looks yummy indeed.

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 9, 2012 11:07 am

A nice look at the classic “creep.” I especially agree with you on the glut of chat we’ve had to put up with from their modern counterparts. I’ll be damned if I can find the time to read AMERICAN GOTHIC, which I misplaced for a few months (I have a Stephen King-like apartment which sometimes swallows books…for a while), but what I’ve read I enjoyed. I have his new book which, based on a quick scan, looks yummy indeed.

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