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15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won’t Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

6. Arabian Nights (1942) Director: John Rawlins – and – 7. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) Director: Arthur Lubin


Even though Universal was an economical studio, they grasped the point of splurging on Technicolor for adventures and swashbucklers packed with half-clad eye candy, including a host of Orientalist exotica such as Arabian Nights (Kino Lorber) and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Kino Lorber).

Several of these items starred Dominican beauty Maria Montez, “the Queen of Technicolor”, mostly paired with heart-throb Jon Hall of mixed Tahitian-Swiss parentage. Indeed, these projects were the most “multicultural” of any 1940s studio, as the stars and extras paraded a dazzling array of white, black and Latino bodies, plus origins from India (Sabu), Turkey (Turhan Bey, “the Turkish Delight”), and even some Arabs here and there for luck.

As wartime escapism, these films are baldly artificial and nonsensical, sometimes earning an over-the-top “camp” reputation. Connoisseurs should clap eyes on Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman (1944), issued on Kino Blu-ray in January 2020, but these newest releases are “Arabian” pastiches.

These films are also highly erotic, something that rhymes with “exotic”. The stories may be chaste but the images are sizzling servings of skin and sado-masochism. You see, foreigners were free of Puritan heritage and middle-American values, and thus could enjoy themselves without knowing better. Audiences lined up to sample this larger-than-life cavorting.

If we wasted time discussing “story” in these things, it’s running around and secret identities and backing and forthing about the power of the throne and who wants it and how this ties in with the promise of sex with glamour goddess Montez. What matters in Arabian Nights is the Oscar-nominated photography and art directing and the chance to spot magnetic talents like the woefully underused Jeni Le Gon, a great African-American dancer who plays the handmaiden and rivets our attention as much as Montez.

Also present: Sabu (stealing the show and making the plot go), Turhan Bey (shirtless on the rack), Thomas Gomez, Leif Erikson, Edgar Barrier, comedians Billy Gilbert and Shemp Howard, and a bevy of harem lasses including future horror star Acquanetta. As her confusing Wikipedia page indicates, Acquanetta may have been an African-American who claimed to be Arapaho and was billed as “the Venezuelan Volcano”. You figure it out. Sometimes Hollywood kept everyone rigidly in place and sometimes pioneered quicksilver post-racial identities in casting, as per convenience. Not for nothing was it a dream factory.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves expands the Montez-Hall-Sabu triumvirate with Fortunio Bonanova and comic relief from Andy Devine. This popular western sidekick makes a reasonable presence for movies described as “westerns with camels”. Philippa Berry discusses these films’ history and everyone’s careers on the commentary tracks and begins by observing that the so-called Arabian Nights tales boast a mixed Indian, Arabic, Persian and African origin–an early example in world literature of multicultural goulash.

8. Curse of the Undead (1959) Director: Edward Dein


Curse of the Undead (Kino Lorber) is a pioneering western-horror hybrid in atmospheric black and white. Somewhere in the Old West, the legacy of a former Spanish land grant manifests as a cursed aristocrat, now dressed in black and drifting as a hired gun. Drake (Michael Pate, charismatic and riveting) wrestles with upright and uptight Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) for the love of a spunky heiress (Kathleen Crowley, credibly conflicted). Drake, who walks by day, is an unusual vampire who was never vamped himself and whose victims don’t revive.

The first coffin scene is one of the most morbid in ’50s horror, implying homo-erotic necrophilia. This combines with eyebrow-raising bits of dialogue to reveal the film’s origins as a put-on called Eat Me Gently about a gay vampire, as explained in the commentary by film historian Tom Weaver, who interviewed director Edward Dein and his co-writer wife Mildred. Coffin as closet. Universal wasn’t going to make that picture. Weaver also reports that Pate and Crowley were happy with their work, as they should have been.

Weaver draws pertinent connections with other movies. The scene where the heroine says she’d pray to the devil reminds him ofThe Devil and Daniel Webster, aka All That Money Can Buy (1941, William Dieterle), and it reminds me of a similar blasphemy in The Soul of a Monster (1944, Will Jason), which is also scripted by Edward Dein.

This good-looking Blu-ray offers no option for seeing the full unmasked frame as in older TV and video prints, and that would have been a nice choice. Still, seeing an optimal 2K mastering makes a big difference to appreciating the fine visual tone of this peculiar cult item.

9. The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) Director: John Gilling


Released in the USA as Mania, The Flesh and the Fiends (Kino Lorber) is a richly grim historical film laced with shudders and witty dialogue. In a variant on his coldly driven Dr. Frankenstein, Peter Cushing plays real-life 19th Century figure Dr. Robert Knox, who became notorious for buying fresh cadavers from body-snatchers Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence).

Alas, those men were none too picky about how to provide the goods. In other words, the corpses were a little too fresh, and the results offer a comment on what happens when money splits the difference between science and morality.

Cushing symbolizes Knox’s blinkered nature with a drooping eyelid that happens to be historically accurate. Rose and Pleasence play off each other in chilling comic mode, like a depraved Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. As a brazen harlot, Billie Whitelaw presents the most sympathetic character and the movie’s class consciousness.

Also outstanding are the production design and widescreen black and white photography. Some online reviewers have noticed minor fluctuations in the brightness and detail in the source print, and I notice them too but they’re bearable. In a way, those moments convey an antique patina as though the movie really were a survival from the late 1820s. The opening J. Arthur Rank gong logo is in Portuguese, which may tell us something about the print.

This film has been long overdue on Blu-ray. Kino’s disc offers the “continental” version (with glimpses of nudity) and a much shorter, visually cropped USA re-release with the title The Fiendish Ghouls. Critic Tim Lucas‘ commentary makes thematic observations amid praise and background info. Fans of excellent British cinema must check this out.

10. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) Director: Val Guest

In the British tradition of apocalyptic science fiction, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Kino Lorber) stakes a claim between the cozy disasters of John Wyndham and the more baroque efforts of J.G. Ballard. As on a certain episode of The Twilight Zone, Earth is heading into the sun.

The film’s tense vision is created by nuclear testing, so the paranoia combines Cold War fears with what we now call climate change. Journalists played by Edward Judd and Leo McKern provide our point of view, with Judd’s hero finding time to romance a heroine (Janet Munro). Look for young Michael Caine as a traffic cop.

Like The Flesh and the Fiends, here’s another early ’60s British widescreen wonder long overdue on Blu-ray. Val Guest was a master of British widescreen thrillers that capture a vivid urban world, and this is among his finest hours, bleak and beautifully done in stark matter-of-factness. Harry Waxman’s deep-focus photography phases from bustle to hysteria and hopelessness in flat monochrome with tinted opening and closing sequences.

The scenes of chaos and public relief have a documentary edge perhaps intended to recall the London of the Blitz, indicating that the city keeps suffering disaster, and these are often accompanied by spiffy matte paintings. The deserted streets also recall the Boulting Brother’s nuclear thriller Seven Days to Noon (1950). Richard Harland Smith provides an informed commentary, and a separate track retains a previous DVD’s reminiscence with Guest.