I may have mentioned a few times in these posts that I am a big fan of horror movies. It’s true. I will watch almost any horror film I can get my hands on in hopes of finding that most elusive of all horror films: one that actually scares me. They’re so few and far between, really, that sometimes I think I may have desensitized myself to the point where I have become unfrightenable. I used to find myself in the horror section at the local video store (remember those? – today I browse the horror lists on Netflix or Pay Per View), forever searching for that rare gem – the rose atop the pile of shit, if you will, the horror film made well enough to actually give me the creeps.
It doesn’t happen often, but there have been a few. And these searches, while often completely fruitless, have occasionally led me to some pretty good movies. It’s how I discovered Peter Jackson’s over the top gorefest Dead Alive (not scary at all, really, but funny and fun in the way only the best of the worst B movies can be) and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (parts one and two – also not scary and largely bad, but oh so much fun just because of Bruce Campbell).
So I got to thinking, what is it about a movie that really scares me? The answer to that question is different for everyone, I’m sure, so I’m speaking for myself here. It’s easier to start by naming what does not scare me, I suppose. Overdone film tricks, for example, do not scare me. Ask my eighteen year-old son what the scariest movie he’s ever seen is, for example, and his short list is bound to include 2007’s Paranormal Activity and Sam Raimi’s Drag me to Hell. Neither of these films are scary, in my opinion. The former has one really good scare in it, but it comes at the end of the film after the director has bored you for ninety minutes with grainy video of things going bump in the night, taking cues from The Blair Witch Project, which I think was scary – more on that later. The latter has lots of scares throughout, but relies on the age old trick of having things suddenly jump out at the film’s heronie while the soundtrack suddenly spikes to around 90 decibles. I liked both films, but can honestly say I was able to pretty much forget all about Drag Me To Hell and Paranormal Activity once the house lights came up.
That’s the mark of a good scary movie to me. It makes you keep thinking about it long after it’s over. A few examples:
1976 – Carrie – Brian DePalma
Most of Brian DePalma’s Carrie is really not all that scary. It makes the list because of three elements of the film. The first is the masterful shock sequence at the end when Amy Irving’s character places flowers on Carrie’s grave, only to have the dead teen’s still prom-night bloody arm shoot up from the ground and grab her wrist. I first saw that film at about age ten and pretty much wet myself when that happened. I never saw it again until over a decade later and, at 24, I still almost crapped in my jeans when it happened. The second element is Piper Laurie’s wonderful portrayal of Margret White, Carrie’s religious fanatic mother. If she doesn’t give you the creeps, you are not human. The third and final element is Jesus. More spcifically, it’s the demented glow-in-the-dark Jesus statue that lives in the closet Carrie is often locked in by her crazy mother. Seeing that freaky Jesus would turn me against God pretty quick, I think, and poor Carrie is forced to pray to the thing regularly. It creeps me out just thinking about it, man. Let’s move on.
1980 – The Shining – Stanley Kubrick
Interesting that the first two flicks I think of came originally from the mind of Stephen King. Twisted bastard. The Shining‘s fear factor, however, has little to do with King, though, as Kubrick’s film really has very little in common with King’s book. And that’s okay. Because Kubrick so masterfully brings the Overlook Hotel to life, it’s easy for even the staunchest King fan to forget that his favorite author’s work is being heavily altered. The early 1990’s saw a TV miniseries version of The Shining that keeps very close to the source material if that’s important to you. You can have Steven Weber (of Wings fame) and Rebecca DeMornay. I’ll take Nicholson and Kubrick – even if that means I am also stuck with Shelley Duvall. The Shining is creepy as all fuck, from the empty halls of the hotel itself to the place’s ghostly inhabitants (the weird-ass British twin girls, Lloyd the specter bartender who knocks Jack off the wagon, in his mind, at least, Grady the former caretaker, and the hot Euro blonde turned waterlogged hag in room 237) and works because you can’t help but conjure images of it in your mind long after the film has ended. And who plays crazy like Nicholson in his prime? No one but Nicholson, that’s who.
1987 – From A Whisper to a Scream (AKA The Offspring) – Jeff Burr
From a Whisper to a Scream was released in the US as The Offspring (the DVD release carries the original title), and is a largely forgettable movie. It stars Vincent Price and is one of the last films he made before his death in 1993. Price plays the uncle of a convicted murderess and relates four rather innocuous horror tales that for the most part are sure to induce yawns. I remember this flick solely for one of those four stories and then ony for one scene, but that scene pretty much gave me nightmares for some time after seeing it. The story in question involves a meek little man named Stanley who is infatuated with a woman at his office. He lusts after her and longs for her daily, but is barely able to muster the courage to even speak to her, let alone ask her out. Finally he does manage to get her on a date and, as expected, he blows it with her. She couldn’t be less interested in him as a person and is certainly not interested in him as a man. Trying to fumble for a good night kiss before dropping her off, however, something snaps in this dude and he goes all Ed Gein on the woman, strangling her to death and than having sex with her corpse. Some time later we see a zombified infant confront the man. This ghastly baby is the stuff of B movie magic, you can practically see the strings that make it move. As the man recoils in horror from the undead baby, it calls him “daddy” and nods at him knowingly. Perhaps it was because I was a new father when I saw it, but that moment chilled me to the bone and kept me up nights afterward. Freakie-deaky.
The film does have one other interesting scene, in which the convicted murderess is put to death by lethal injection. The actress playing her (Martine Beswick) does a bizarre combination death scene/orgasm which at once will make male viewers feel incredibly horny and incredibly sick. Bonus points for the death-cum scene in my book.
1968 – Night of the Living Dead – George A. Romero
Surprised that I hadn’t included this one so far? I actually had to debate about it for a bit. I have seen this film so many times that it just doesn’t scare me anymore. Hell, I can practically recite the dialogue almost as well as I can any of the three original Star Wars films. Well, I almost made it through an entire post without mentioning Star Wars. Anyhoo, I decided to include Night because, the first time you see it, it is scary. Even in today’s world where zombie films are as common as New York cab drivers with accents (and who can’t change a $20), the overall eeriness of Romero’s first film, coupled with the gore factor (even in black and white, the film is one of the goriest ever made), make Night of the Living Dead a true fright-fest. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…”
1968 – Rosemary’s Baby – Roman Polanski
Rosemary’s Baby is one of those oddly psychological horror films that preys on the viewer’s sense of morality from the moment it starts to well after the end. You won’t find any masked killers lurking in the dark or apparitions (which undoubtedly later prove to be “just the cat”) jumping out of suddenly opened closets, instead you’ll be met with an ever building sense of dread that perhaps the Devil is, in fact, real and has taken over the life of poor Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) in the most perverse way possible. After the film has ended and we see young Rosemary caring for her titular Baby (horns, fangs, and all), we can’t help but feel… icky. I dare anyone to watch this film from start to finish without any interruption and not feel like they need a Silkwood shower… for their soul.
1999 – The Blair Witch Project – Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
The Blair Witch Project was a sleeper hit that broke a lot of cinematic ground when it was released. It started an entire sub-genre of films (those shot with handheld film or video cameras) and proved (again) that a movie made on a literal shoestring budget (an estimated $60,000) can go on to do huge business given the right set of circumstances. It paved the way for similarly budget films (Paranormal Activity) as well as larger budget imitators (Cloverfield, Quarantine) Blair Witch is really not that scary through most of the film and is more likely to cause motion sickness than heart palpitations… until the end. Filmmaker Kevin Smith put it best in one of his recent podcasts when he described that final scene as “incredibly fucked up.” For those who haven’t seen it, that end scene involves two of the principal characters running from an unseen threat in the woods and happening upon a run-down shack. The action is seen through Heather’s (Heather Donahue) black and white low-light camera. In the chase she loses sight of Mike (Michael C. Williams), who has been running ahead of her. Finally she enters an open room in the shack to find Mike turned away, standing in one place and facing the wall. The camera drops to the floor (presumably so does Heather), giving us a few more seconds of the disturbing image shot at an odd angle. The significance of Mike’s pose is revealed in an earlier part of the film, when the students are interviewing locals about the legend of the “Blair Witch” and are told by one rather bizarre woman that she (the Witch) was reputed to require her child victims to turn and face the wall while she murdered their friends and siblings because she “couldn’t stand the feel of their eyes on her” while she did it. It’s enough to freak your shit out and, under the influence of the right mind-altering chemicals, it’s enough to fuck you up for the rest of your life.
1973 – The Exorcist – William Friedkin
Come on, who wasn’t scared by The Exorcist? If watching a ten year old Linda Blair vomit pea soup, turn her head all the way ’round, and masturbate furiously with a crucifix doesn’t freak you out, then there’s just something wrong with you.