The last time you were around a campfire and the ghost tales began, did you run for your tent? Doubtful, as most of us take glee in some kind of fear-based storytelling. Especially when it happens just like in the woods:  you’re catching the thrill along with a group, you have a trusty guide, and some part of you logically knows there isn’t really a werewolf (who might be you) about to emerge when those clouds move off the moon. Pickford Film Center is happily re-creating this exhilarating experience for all of us with seven classic horror movies you can attend—one per month—starting in February.  

See Bela Lugosi (1931) as the dashing Count Dracula in the first Universal horror movie in this series on February 29th (you got an extra day in the month, you might as well put it to good use!). Photo courtesy: Pickford Film Center

The series celebrates the emergence of horror films in the United States at Universal Studios, and features screenings of landmark titles from the ’30s, complete with a live host to set the scene.

“One of the things I think is going to be cool about this for audiences is that while we do have Dracula and Frankenstein (1931), we also have lesser known but also amazing shows from the Universal vault,” says series co-host and Bleedingham co-founder Langley West. “The Old Dark House (1932) was directed by James Whale, the same director as Frankenstein, and stars Boris Karloff. James Whale was one of the first people to inject humor into the horror genre. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is also Whale and is one of the few sequels that is universally regarded as being superior to its predecessor.”

Pickford Film Center Executive Director Susie Purves had the original vision to present these films. “We do many series looking at American classic cinema, and these Universal horror films were the template for everything that has followed,” she says. “I was interested to look at them because horror is such a popular genre now—it encompasses really everything—so I was interested in introducing our audience to what were the originals.”

The Universal horror films became the templates for all horror cinema to follow. This is that well-known story line where travelers end up in a creepy house with strangers because of a storm. Chaos, and some comedy, ensues. Photo courtesy: Pickford Film Center

She says that the experience, much like the campout described above, can be family friendly. She remembers watching these titles herself when she was young, on tv, nearly always presented by a creepy host. “The host I grew up with in Detroit was ‘Sir Graves Ghastly’ (actor Lawson J. Deming),” she recalls. “So we thought we should have our own creepy host. ‘Uncle Bloody Joe’ will rise out of a coffin—or something—and explain some things about horror to the audience. We really wanted to do something different than just showing the films.”

It’s Alive is the name of the series, which cannot be said of ‘Uncle Bloody Joe,’” West adds. “He will be your host and guide for these forays into the cobwebbed hallways of black-and-white gothic cinema.” ‘Uncle Bloody Joe’ is a creation of West and fellow horror buff and PFC Board Member Gary Washington.

These films fall into the “pre-code” period in Hollywood, a short time when censorship guidelines were not especially enforced and films could touch on controversial things for the time. This movie is based on H.G. Well’s novel from 1897. Photo courtesy: Pickford Film Center

Purves says she wanted Washington and West involved because both are co-founders of Bleedingham and know a ton about the genre—but also because they’re filmmakers themselves. When it comes to a live host and a creepy setting, “they can make it happen,” says Purves. “Also, this series is speaking to an audience they are already involved with.”

Washington points to the impact of the films themselves. “Even though horror is subjective, there’s so much to learn from the classics,” he says. “No matter how shiny or gritty the movie becomes today, you can always trace back to themes or elements from the originals.”

Purves adds that the series is programmed in chronological order, so audiences can experience how the genre evolved over time.

James Whale directed many of these original US horror films, despite being English-born. Photo courtesy: Pickford Film Center

“All of these movies are beautiful art pieces, the template that becomes the aesthetic for gothic horror,” says West. Early gothic cinema came from Germany after WWI. “Nosferatu (Germany, 1922) becomes Dracula in the Hollywood lens (1931). People here were dealing with the relatively recent memory of the horrors of WWI mixed with the dread of what was happening in Germany as we led up to WWII. You also can’t discount the uncertainty and fear that was brought on with the Great Depression. America was ripe not only to have the pants scared off of them, but to escape.”

Purves adds, “These films were made right as the Hollywood code came into being and codified the mores of acceptability—sort of set the moral rules of film of the time. Horror films were a way to deal with some issues that weren’t available in other filmmaking. It was the Great Depression [and] people were dealing with a lot; coming to these films made them feel better somehow.” Many things simmer under the surface in these films—as in many modern horror movies.

“Fear is a big deal,” Purves continues. “But then, when I was a kid watching Dracula, just knowing that a wooden stake was all I needed to be safe made me feel better. These films built in ways for us to deal with the fears we have.”

Tickets can be bought online in advance or at the door. Show time is 3:00 p.m. the last Saturday of each month, February through August.

Featured photo by Jake Holt


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