Oh! The Horror
One of my favorite pastimes, growing up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in the 1950s, was going to the movies. Our neighborhood theater was the Wishart, and I spent many Saturdays watching double features, cartoons, shorts, and serials all for 15 cents. Of course, many of the serials my parents saw in the 30s and 40s ended up as series on 1950s TV. Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Buck Rogers come to mind.
My favorite, however, was the feature presentation, and nothing was better than a 1950s horror flick. There’s something special about seeing horror movies in a theater, on a large screen with people screaming and gasping. I think the 1950s was the golden age of horror movies. Godzilla, the Bad Seed, The Mole People, The Blob, and Plan Nine from Outer Space are great examples. The three horror movies that made the most profound impression on me were:
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
It was 1953, and a few of my friends and I were off to the Saturday matinee at the Wishart movie theater. Joe the Pretzelman was at his sometimes post across the street at the bank, and the number 60 trolley was transporting people to Kensington Avenue where they would shop. We found a penny and placed it on the tracks to see what happens when the trolley ran over it. Satisfied with the results, we bought our tickets, handed them to the usher, and entered the world of fantasy and horror. A box of Good and Plenty candies and a coke fortified us for what we were about to experience.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was one of the first films to take advantage of the atomic bomb scare and the tests conducted at the Bikini Atoll. During the weekdays, we were experiencing atomic bomb drills at school, and that heightened our fear of anything nuclear. In this movie, the gigantic creature that lived in the deep waters of the ocean had been mutated by nuclear waste. It somehow was disturbed and came to the surface and headed directly for New York City. The army tried to kill it with tanks and cannons to no avail. Somehow a policeman thought he could do better. He pointed his revolver at the fifty-foot monster and shot. The beast looked at him, and I thought I saw it smile, then it ate the policeman. At one point in the movie, the scientists find out that the blood from the monster is radioactive, and it begins to kill people.
By today’s standards, it’s laughable, but to my nine-year-old mind, it was the scariest thing I had ever seen. Well, the second scariest after a flying roach. Halfway through the movie, I got a nosebleed and that same night started a week of vivid nightmares where when I exit the theater, the beast was waiting to eat me.
House of Wax 3D
Something’s disturbing about the House of Wax. The idea of killing people and dipping them in wax is terrifying. I saw this movie in 3D at the Wishart Theater in 1953. I have to tell you that Vincent Price was the quintessential horror movie actor.
To the nine-year-old mind, Can-Can girls dancing with their legs, seemingly coming out of the screen, was fascinating. I didn’t know why until I was a teenager. The film was mysterious, sexy, and very scary. By the way, Charles Bronson (using his real name (Buchinsky) played the Igor character. Again I spent a week having nightmares of being dripped in wax.
Creature from the Black Lagoon
I think this film might have been my all-time favorite horror movie. It was released in 1954 and also had a 3D version. There were sequels in 1955 and 1956, but the first one remains the best. There was something about the Gill-man that made you feel sorry for him but also scared the heck out of you. This movie was as much a love story as it was a horror movie. I spent the whole film jumping out of my seat, and once again, I had weeks of nightmares.
The 2017 movie, The Shape of Water, was inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s memories of the Creature From the Black Lagoon movie.
I have never been into the modern Slasher Films. For me, nothing compares to the scores of pre-1960s horror films I saw at various Philadelphia movie theaters or on television. Don’t get me wrong, movies like The Exorcist, Carrie, and Rosemary’s Baby terrified me, but still, none have affected me like the horror films of my youth.
Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.