July 2, 2021

I Can’t Believe My Parents Let Me Watch That, Part Two

Way back in February 2020, I wrote about how grateful I was that my parents looked the other way when, as a pre-teen, I stayed up on Friday and Saturday nights to watch my beloved sci-fi flicks and Universal horrors.

I’m sure they had some mild reservations about my viewing choices, and they weren’t above occasionally using TV privileges as a disciplinary tool, but at the same time, the attitude clearly was “so he’s watching old reruns of Dracula and Frankenstein-- how harmful can that be?”

And most of the time, they were right. By the time I started collecting copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, paging through the dogeared issues while eagerly awaiting the next installment of the local creature feature, I was too old to be frightened by the classic monsters. It was a lot of fun watching them chase their victims around creepy cobwebbed castles and retro laboratories, but really scary they were not.

The Jasons, Freddies, and Michael Myers had quite a few more years to wait before a more relaxed, “oh, whatever” society allowed them to slice and dice their way across movie and TV screens.

Stairs down to dark, scary basement
When I was a kid, I was allowed to watch my late night monster
movies on one condition: I had to watch them in the basement.

By contrast, the classic monsters were born in an age of moral panic. In the 1920s, when Lon Chaney was thrilling audiences with his portrayals of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Universal’s first horror cycle, studio moguls were worried that too many thrills -- especially in the form of Hollywood sex and murder scandals, played against a backdrop of scantily clad flappers -- were turning uptight mainstream America off of their products.

Even as Universal was gearing up for its second horror wave featuring Frankenstein and Dracula, Hollywood was attending to its image problem by developing the Motion Picture Production Code to stake out what was permissible and what was not for U.S. audiences. (The code was popularly known as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, first chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.)

By the time the Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter were done strutting their stuff, the Code was in full effect, and Universal took a few years off from monster-making before the lure of profits brought the monsters back in the form of Son of Frankenstein in 1939. The Code’s finger-wagging lasted until 1968, when it was replaced by the Motion Picture Association ratings system, which is still in force.

It’s testimony to the genius of the folks at Universal that they were able to navigate the moral panics and the Code to produce a series of horror films that were long on atmosphere but hardly contained a drop of blood, mostly suggesting violence rather than splashing it on the screen. Even in today’s over-the-top entertainment landscape, the relatively understated Universal monsters are still revered by some and recognizable to almost everyone.

I was barely a teenager when the MPAA ratings were introduced in 1968. Along with a cartoon, theatergoers at the time were treated to a short introduction to the new system, which replaced the Code’s pre-censorship of content with a scheme that theoretically prevented children from being exposed to rough content that was increasingly becoming the norm. The very first letter ratings were:

  • Rated G: Suggested for general audiences.
  • Rated M: Suggested for mature audiences - Parental discretion advised.
  • Rated R: Restricted – persons under 16 not admitted, unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.
  • Rated X: Persons under 16 not admitted. [Wikipedia]

By 1968, there was plenty of rough content to be protected from. It was the beginning of the of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll era, with a good amount of blood mixed in. Independent filmmakers were finding that almost any kind of transgressive, youth-oriented subject matter translated into box office gold, so theater and drive-in screens started filling up with hot stewardesses and nurses, drug-crazed motorcycle gangs and LSD trips.

On the horror front, Hammer Films had spent the past decade spicing up the classic monsters with heaving bosoms and technicolor blood. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead upped the ante even further, introducing mainstream audiences to zombies munching on human body parts, forever changing what was acceptable to show in your neighborhood theater.

As with most revolutions, it only seemed like propriety and the conservative status quo had been toppled overnight. In reality, there were all kinds of rough and shocking scenes in movies leading up to the late ‘60s that made their way past censors, decency leagues and concerned parents, and eventually wound up on my cherished creature features.

The following are a few more examples of shocking scenes that I watched late at night, and paid for with fitful sleep and a few nightmares. They may not seem much by today’s horror standards, but each was a sort of building block leading to today’s “freedom” of expression. I survived them, and I’m better for it (I think).

Parody of MPAA preview ratings

Cosmic Monsters (aka The Strange World of Planet X; 1958)

At the time, Cosmic Monsters seemed like a perfectly innocuous big bug sci-fi movie, produced by the Brits on a nothing budget, and starring American C-list actor Forrest Tucker (who around the same time starred in such UK productions as The Abominable Snowman and The Crawling Eye).

The highlight of Cosmic Monsters features scenes of soldiers shooting at supposed giant insects, which consisted of insert shots of actual insects doing insecty sorts of things. However, two scenes grabbed my attention. In the first, protagonist Michele Dupont (Gaby André) gets tangled up in a giant spider’s web -- which of course had been done before, but in this version, the filmmakers cleverly integrated shots of Gaby with an actual spider jerking its legs around in real spider-time (not a lame-looking, slow-moving puppet), making for a more shuddery effect.

In the second, a large centipede-looking thing attacks a soldier and chews half of his face off -- needless to say, that got my attention. The only copies of the movie I’ve been able to find show only the aftermath of the giant bug attack, but my memory might not be so shaky after all. According to the movie’s IMDb page:

"The film was originally released in the UK in 1958 with an uncut 'X' certificate as 'The Strange World of Planet X (1958)'. It was then cut down to an 'A' certificate in 1960 and released as "The Strange World", and was missing some shots of Michelle trapped in a giant web and a dead man's face being eaten by an insect."

Speaking of getting caught up in a web of sci-fi intrigue, 20 years before Alien, Beast from Haunted Cave captured hapless humans and spun them up tight in huge webs in order to drain their lifeblood a little at a time.

The first time I saw the scene below, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end (see my full review of Beast here). Beast from Haunted Cave was shot quick and cheap, but also delivered the stuff of real nightmares.

While The Monster of Piedras Blancas is a poor man’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, it is far from the worst Creature imitator. In spite of the low budget, the producers managed to get Jack Kevan, who had worked on the original Creature suit, to cobble together the Piedras Blancas monster from parts scavenged from other productions (see more about how the suit was created here). The end result is pretty effective.

Nevertheless, the filmmakers decided that they needed something more than a cool suit to lure jaded teenagers to the drive-in, so they gave their creature a predilection for **GULP** decapitating its victims before feasting on them.

This one is really rough, and in retrospect, it’s amazing that by the time I turned 13, I had seen Hypnotic Eye at least twice. The disturbing plot revolves around women in deep trances mutilating themselves with common household appliances and chemicals. Investigators find a common thread: they all had attended a stage hypnotist show and were volunteer subjects.

The film immediately gets down to business with one such incident. It’s perhaps all the more disturbing that, despite the low budget, the movie is well made, with more than a few stylishly suspenseful moments.

In addition to adding copious amounts of blood and boobs to cinematic vampire lore, Hammer Studios transformed Dracula from a smooth, refined nobleman who patiently lured his victims into his trap like a human spider, to a frenetic, bloody-eyed monster who could scarcely wait to put the bite on his prey.

The culmination of Hammer’s feral Dracula was Prince of Darkness, in which Christopher Lee plays the part with silent ferocity, stalking his unwary guests more like a wolf than a spider. The way in which the Count is resurrected was a big eye-opener for me, the first time I had seen a human being trussed up like a side of beef and sacrificed in such a horrific way.


  1. Oh, those cheesy old horror flicks from the 50s and 60s! I remember, when a very small child, seeing on TV, of all things, From Hell It Came, and being scared out of my wits by it. Now it's considered prime cheese fest, but I remember this one scene, of the tree monster rising from a pit in the ground and even screaming out loud watching it!

    You're right about how, even after the Production Code crackdown, horror movies continued to imply, if not actually contain, scenes of violence. The 1935 version of The Raven, with Karloff & Lugosi, came out after the Code but still has scenes suggesting bizarre torture and mutilation. It was considered so horrific in its day that Britain in response actually banned children 16 and under from seeing horror films, which put a damper on the horror film market. Those were the days!

    1. I love the Tabanga of From Hell It Came, and was interested to see that it recently got the Svengoolie treatment. It's such an outrageous monster concept that you've got to tip your cap to the creators.
      The Raven from '35 is a prime example of the power of suggestion combined with a little imagination on the part of the viewer. But apparently since it didn't show the implied nastiness (except for Karloff's character's botched surgery), unimaginative U.S. censors let it pass. The Brits got it however, and were suitably horrified. That British X rating did indeed squelch a lot of the fun on both sides of the Atlantic! :)

  2. The scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness where Dracula is brought back to life is one of the most shocking and depressing scenes I remember from all the Hammer films. Just a truly overdone, unnecessarily ugly sequence. I'm amazed that it made it past the censors, especially in the UK. And to think that just a few years earlier, they were all tied up in knots over Black Sunday.

    1. I remember my older brother taking me to see this at the local downtown theater, and squirming in my seat during the scene. At the time, Hammer films had a reputation for being grisly in large part because of the technicolor blood and the depiction of body parts in the Frankenstein series, but that Dracula scene was really something a concerned parent could point to as being completely over the top.