Hysterical

One of the things I really miss about the old 1930s horror films is that one scene were someone completely loses their shit on screen. I’m talking about the scene in The Mummy where a shadow falls over the young archaeologist who has just read the scroll of Thoth out loud, inadvertently releasing the title creature. Or the scene in Frankenstein where the good doctor realizes his experiment has succeeded. Or, the coup de grace, any scene involving Renfield from Dracula.

In the case of the Mummy, the young archaeologist simply starts laughing louder and louder until he becomes unhinged. For Frankenstein, it’s the familiar refrain of, “It’s alive” over and over until he collapses from the sheer exhaustion of mania. For Renfield, it happens when his master turns on him and things get… ugly.

I don’t know if there’s an actor working today who could convincingly melt down this garishly, but it appears to have been a tool in the standard bag of tricks for actors in the 1930s. Maybe Pacino, but I don’t think even he could do the “It’s alive!” scene with the same unnerving sense of mounting hysteria and decaying sanity as Colin Clive did.

Likewise, there’s something remarkably malicious about Dwight Frye’s turn as Renfield. It’s a brand of lunacy that’s as hungry as it is unhinged. But of all of these, my favorite is the one from The Mummy. I remember quite clearly experiencing that scene on a dreary Saturday night Creature Features when I was a kid.

At first, I thought it was funny. The guy’s laughing. That’s funny, right? He sees this creature shambling toward him and starts laughing. So I started to laugh. But then the tone and pitch of the laughter quickly twist into something else, something terrifying. I mean, if you were standing in line at Wendy’s and someone started laughing like that, you would clear the hell out of there like your hair was on fire. That is the laugh of someone who has taken one giant leap away from his sanity.

Maybe Jared Leto could do it? I guess we’ll see when he struts and frets his Joker across the stage in Suicide Squad though I’m doubtful. The last time someone went Method on a comic book character we ended up with Blade 3.

Now that’s a terrifying prospect.

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