The horror, the horror
Prior to gentrification, Melbourne’s Richmond was a rough-and-tumble Labor stronghold headquartered in a bulky town hall in Bridge Road. Next door was a huge Hoyts cinema, imaginatively called the Cinema. Both buildings were, in a sense, haunted. The Tammany-style operatives in the town hall ensured that even if you were dead, you weren’t – you stayed on the electoral roll and continued to vote Labor. And the Cinema was home to horror movies – to murderous mummies, Boris Karloff monsters, Lon Chaney wolf men and an impressive volume of vampires.
We’re talking 1940s films – before the arrival of It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon (jumping off the screen in migraine-inducing 3D) along with Things, Blobs and other nasties that went bump in the night.
Arthur Hodges and I used to wag Scouts to see vintage horror at the Cinema, our favourite being James Whale’s masterpiece Frankenstein, an early effort in plastic surgery. We sat side by side in a theatre so cavernous that, a few years down the track, bikies would ride their machines up and down the aisles in thunderous tribute to Marlon Brando’s The Wild One. But on horror nights, such as the time we saw
The Beast With Five Fingers, you could hear a pin drop.
Arthur and I saw them all. Or rather I did. Arthur never saw a thing. No sooner did we take our seats than he’d curl into the foetal position and put his scout’s hat over his face. For the rest of the show he’d whisper “what’s happening?” and expect me to provide a running commentary.
I don’t need to remind you of Boris as Frankenstein’s tragic monster or poor Lon morphing into the wolf man. But in the case of The Beast With Five Fingers I had to inform a terrified Arthur, hiding in his scouts hat, that a hand cruelly separated from the wrist of a crazed concert pianist was crawling across the floor like a great white spider… approaching the next victim’s trouser leg on its way to his throat. Strangulation and a cinema full of screams. In the same way Arthur sat – squirmed – through mummified monsters and human bats seeking transfusions. He loved his horror. When the lights came up and we rushed to the door to avoid God Save the King (a point of pride to young proto-republicans), Arthur was convinced we’d got our money’s worth and that he’d loved every moment of the movie, particularly that second strangulation.
If the ’30s and ’40s had been a golden age for movie monsters, the ’50s and ’60s, with their Phantom of the Opera and House of Wax – 3D again – were marked by ever better prosthetics, make-up and technical wizardry. But for me (and Arthur in his hat) the homemade un-special effects added to the charm of our nights at the Cinema. It’s like the creaky stop-motion King Kong starring Fay Wray or the silly Tarzan movies. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Johnny Weissmuller wrestling a rubber crocodile or riding an Indian elephant through the African jungle. The very absence of green screen and clever-dick digital effects enhanced the charm. This was the era of innocent horror.
Are you still with us, my scouting friend Arthur Hodges? You’d be 80 by now. So perhaps you’ve passed on like the Cinema, Richmond. If so I’m sure Labor in Richmond still has you on the electoral roll and you contributed to that 5 per cent swing to the Labor Government.