A touch of spookiness was added to the classic detail of the Detroit Movie Palaces on the weekend before Halloween 2006. All three theaters held special Halloween events that included scary movies, frightful decorations and creative live entertainment.
The weekend started on Friday, October 27, with the Michigan Theater’s presentation of the 1922 silent film Nosferatu. Accompanying the film were musicians from the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Gillian Anderson. Michigan Theater CEO and Executive Director Russ Collins noted that Anderson had reconstructed the original musical score for the film from different sources.
Before the film, the Grand Foyer of the Michigan buzzed with activity as waiters and waitresses scurried about with elegant platters of hors d’oeuvres treats. In the auditorium, an ominous moon was projected on to the screen, above a stageful of scary decorations like gravestones, bats, a coffin, bare trees and cobwebs. As the orchestra warmed up, ushers guided patrons to reserved seats, and it felt like a night at the Michigan in the early 1930s.
Michigan staff organist Steven Ball played a short concert before the film, followed by Russ Collins’ introduction of the night’s main feature. Collins explained that silent films were a much more interactive experience than talkies. “If you’re afraid for the heroine, scream!” implored Collins. “It’s OK!”
Soon, we were transported to creepy, mysterious settings in 19th century Europe. The orchestra (which included the theater organ) beautifully enhanced this version of the Dracula story. The percussionists were particularly effective as they created wind sounds and gave sharp jolts to dramatic moments. A standing ovation was given to the orchestra, which plays regular concerts at the Michigan.
The next day, Saturday, October 28, I visited the Redford Theatre for its afternoon screenings of the famous 1931 version of Frankenstein and the 1953 horror comedy, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As I waited in the ticket line, I saw several ladies who were dressed in different costumes receive prizes for their creativity from the ticket taker.
In the auditorium, the orchestra pit looked like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, with a horizontal body covered by a white sheet that took on a strange glow from the reflected light of each movie. Scattered around the body was old electrical equipment and tools like a file, hammer and saw. The whole theater was filled with construction paper cutouts of black birds that were left over from the previous weekend’s showing of the horror classic The Birds.
Redford volunteers dressed up as different characters, including a rough-looking biker, a mad scientist in a white coat, and the Frankenstein monster. In the lobby, a talking mechanical head in a globe encouraged patrons to pick up a schedule and complained about not getting any popcorn. After host Ken Collier introduced the second feature, the Frankenstein monster chased him across the stage.
The two movies gave visitors the chance to see some of the history of the horror film. Watching Frankenstein on the big screen, I gained a new appreciation for Boris Karloff’s performance, with his careful facial movements and his confused mixture of innocence and brutality. Karloff was also in the second movie, where he balanced the silliness of Abbott and Costello.
Both movies were from Universal, and some interior and exterior sets of the Abbott and Costello movie seemed left over from Frankenstein. Universal was probably trying to get a little more mileage out of the classic horror genre, in an era (the 1950s) when the science fiction movie was gaining popularity and monster movies were depending more on explicitly colorful gore to scare audiences.
Detroit Film Theatre
This weekend of Halloween fun finished on Sunday, October 29 with two films at the Detroit Film Theatre that used horror movie tricks to spice up a children’s story (The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T) and a melodramatic tale of love from Japan (Ugetsu).
As visitors settled in for the 4 p.m. showing of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, the beautifully restored DFT auditorium was filled with eerie recorded music that was punctuated with screams, growls, shrieks, groans and moans. Margaret Thomas, chairperson of the Friends of Detroit Film Theatre, dressed up as a black cat and carried around a small mummy that drew many humorous comments.
Before both movies, Thomas hosted contests for costumes and scary sounds like screams, chuckles and laughs. Funny and Scary prizes were awarded in the Kids and Too Old to Be Dressing Up Divisions. One man came as a movie camera, with a row of piano keys around his neck as a tribute to the Dr. T movie. The whole audience got involved after Thomas shouted, “Let’s hear you all scream! Maybe that will get you in the mood!”
For The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, the usually adult DFT crowd had a nice mixture of children. This wildly imaginative 1953 movie, about a piano teacher who tries to kidnap young boys for a gigantic piano performance, was a delightful discovery. It was written by Dr. Seuss, and its absurd exaggerations were familiar to anyone who had grown up with Dr. Seuss classics like The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
The fun of Halloween gave way to the frightful side for the 7 p.m. showing of the 1953 Japanese film Ugetsu, which also kicked off a seven-week tribute to director Kenji Mizoguchi. The ghostly images of this strange love story touched on the mystery and fear that are at the heart of Halloween.
Copyright 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.