Encores & Curtain Calls:
“Look! You want to see? See! Feast your eyes, glut your soul on my cursed ugliness! Look at Erik’s face! Now you know the face of the voice! You were not content to hear me, eh? You wanted to know what I looked like? Oh, you women are so inquisitive! Well, are you satisfied?”
— Gaston Leroux, author
of “Phantom of the Opera”
When I was a kid, in addition to blessing me with much love, side-splitting hilarity and high art, my older brother Gene would regale me with tales of the marvelous series of horror films produced by Universal Studios between 1932 and 1949 — the classic canons of the Frankenstein monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Invisible Man and the Mummy. Coming of age as he did in the 40s, he was smitten with these classics of Americana, as were millions of other vulnerable youngsters.
For several years I listened, with bated breath, to my brother’s narrations of the dark, fateful tales of these tormented beings, hoping somehow that life would eventually bring me the opportunity to experience these hallowed pieces of Americana first hand. Eventually, the heavens granted my prayers in the form of a weekly late-night film venue in the New York region called, appropriately, “Shock Theater,” which hit the airwaves at 11:15 p.m., directly after the late evening news in 1957 and 1958.
‘What a terrible thing to do!’ someone might say, upon hearing of this intrusion into the unstained innocence childhood by an obviously already corrupted older teenager; but I beg to respectfully differ because while I do believe that there are many films and other cultural products that are arguably injurious to young spirits, the deliciously dark cinema up to and including the 1940s is not among them.
Hollywood almost always rendered these melodramas both tastefully and, often, artfully. These are films that sported no blood, much less the outright gore that became so increasingly prevalent in the late 50s and 60s. They also lacked the mindlessly graphic, gratuitous anatomical eviscerations of our own era.
No, they were all mood, atmosphere, innuendo and mystery. Their fascination was never in wanting to see what it was like when a human being was deconstructed by a predator, or in witnessing the blow-by-blow of acts for which people pass the remainder of their days in maximum security prisons, or on death row.
Could Dr. Frankenstein truly, by creating a man out of dead bodies, really find a way to cure the ills of mankind?
Why would such a sweet soul as Lawrence Talbot be fated, upon returning to his ancestral home in Wales to court a newfound Welsh lass, to be bitten by a werewolf and to spend the rest of his waking life dreading the emergence, upon the rising of the full moon, of his own inner demon?
Will Prince Imhotep, who defied the gods of ancient Egypt for love of the forbidden Princess Ananka, and who was buried alive some 2,000 years ago for his sin, now be able, upon his resurrection by a 20th-century archeologist, to consummate his passion for Ananka in her new, reincarnated form?
And strangely, it is to this childhood fascination with the fantastic and the macabre, and my front row seat in my Victorian armchair watching “Shock Theater” that I attribute my eventual passion to become a composer.
The theme chosen for “Shock Theater” — a theme which thrilled every fiber of my being every time I heard it — was none other than Modesto Mussorgsky’s spine-chilling masterpiece “A Night on Bald Mountain. ” This is a piece of music that stands one’s hair on end within seconds flat; I loved it then, I still love it now.
The opening theme for the title and credits of the original “Dracula” was none other than Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake,” the melody so enchanting and intriguing that it could turn an 11-year-old boy into a lifelong mystic. And within that film, when Dracula makes his first acquaintance with his intended victim at a London concert, the lights darken and we hear the dark, fateful opening of Schubert’s unfinished symphony. Goose bumps and shivers.
After that, who wouldn’t want to be a composer?
Well, soon to be upon us is one of the truly spookiest and most compelling of the silent-era classics: Gaston Leroux’s “Phantom of the Opera” in its original version with Lon Chaney Sr., the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” and the live accompaniment of the three-man Alloy Orchestra, Sunday, June 23,
7 p.m., at the Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton.
The Alloy Orchestra collaborates with some of the world’s best cinema archives and collectors. In addition to a dauntingly diverse battery of percussion manned by Ken Winokur, also a clarinettist, there’s Terry Donahue on heavy metal artifacts, including horseshoes redeemed from the junk yard, accordion, musical saw, vocals and Roger Miller on digital keyboards.
Silent though the earliest horror films were, they have ever relied upon the wiles of pianists or organists pounding away on their respective keyboards, filling the air with streams of romantic, tragic, suspenseful horrific music. This is what gets the whole awful, wonderful tale so indelibly under our skin.
All one has to do is view these films minus their musical component to realize, by contrast, just how dramatically impoverished they become: yes, indeed, the music is the thing!
Winokur, the groups director, said the print being screened at the academy has been recently restored so that it “reproduces the extremely intricate color scheme of the original release with elaborate tinting, the experimental two-strip Technicolor sequence at the masked ball and luscious hand tinting.” It is, he said, “the finest print in North America.”
Attendance is strongly suggested: how else will all you sane, responsible, perilously normal readers ever begin to have the visceral sense of how intoxicating it can be to finally give in to your dark side?
Trust me, this is the stuff of which dreams — or is it nightmares? — are made.
Tickets: $15, general admission; $50, for one ticket to a VIP reception and one ticket with preferred seat to film. Academy of Music Box Office, open Tuesday through Friday, 3 to 5 p.m. Call 413-584-9032 ext. 105 (Service fees will apply with purchase). Online,
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at