Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Halloween movies: My four to fear


When's the last time you saw a truly frightening movie? For that matter, how many truly frightening movies can you name in, say, five minutes? Besides The Exorcist, I mean. I can think of maybe four offhand, seven or eight if I have another hour to think about it.

So I'm always a bit skeptical during the Halloween season, when movie pundits start picking the scariest movies of all time, such as this top 25 list from Time's Richard Corliss. Demonstrating that 25 films may be about 15 too many, the list includes such fright-fests as Bambi; the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead; and the 50-second Arrival of a Train in La Ciotat, which, when shown in 1896, had certain members of the audience thinking the train on the screen might run them over. Now, these may have been all groundbreaking films in their own way, but scary they were not.

It's facile to say that they don't make scary movies any more, but it's almost true. Since the mid-1960s, horror has not been that large a genre. While the past 35 years have given us hundreds of films and sequels devoted to shock and gore and the unconventional use of power tools, a movie that can instill true fear -- and keep you jumpy long after it's over -- is difficult to pull off and all too rare. I'm not sure 25 of them even exist.

Which leads me to my own little list. I can't say they're the most frightening movies ever made -- like comedy, horror is pretty subjective -- but I'd expect them to rank well above Bambi on the old Fear-o-Meter. My main criterion is this: They're the sort of movies I still wouldn't want to watch alone.

First, The Innocents, the 1961 movie starring Deborah Kerr and based on Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw. Briefly, a governess comes to suspect that her two young charges are being possessed by pair of malevolent spirits. The foreboding builds in every scene, but subtly, with none of the horror cliches that tend to reassure us that it's only a movie. This is often labeled a psychological thriller, but don't believe it. It's a ghost story, and a damned good one. Highly recommended.

The Japanese film Ringu, and to a lesser degree its American version The Ring, are two movies that can make your blood run cold (although not quite so much now that they've been mercilessly lampooned in Scary Movie 3). When you finally get around to seeing the monstrous Samara, emerging in jump-cuts from a big-screen TV, it's one of the great moments in film horror. Two bad both films are fatally dated by the use of a VHS tape as the key plot device.

The Thing. Is this movie really 25 years old? It still seems as fresh and terrifying as the day it was released. At an isolated Antarctic research station, a shape-shifting organism begins culling the crew. Will Kurt Russell get out of it alive? John Carpenter explores the classic aliens-are-among-us theme better than any film has done before. It's one of the few remakes that's not only better than the original -- the original is actually laughable by comparison. As I recall, the monster in that version was played by James Arness.

Finally, Salem's Lot (1979), which is a unlikely pick for two reasons: It was a made-for-TV mini-series, and it starred David Soul at the height of his cheesy power in "Starsky & Hutch." But for my money, it's one of the best vampire movies ever made. Yes, it had Hutch, but it also had James Mason, who exuded sophisticated evil in every scene. The film's chief vampire had nothing in common with the sex symbols who inhabited the role before and since; he was totally vile and totally evil, and it was no coincidence that he resembled that other great vampire from 55 years earlier, Nosferatu. The image of an undead child scratching at the second-floor window of his brother is still as creepy as they come.

But as I say, horror is subjective, and what keeps my head under the covers at night might not do the same for you. Also, what used to be scary sometimes cannot stand the test of time. I mentioned The Exorcist above, but that groundbreaking film has been undone by countless parodies; the sight of Linda Blair's head executing an awesome 360 is now more campy than creepy. Too bad; it was a classic.

What movie, or movies, stick in your mind as the scariest of them all?

10 comments:

Peter said...

Is that hyperthyroid guy with the bad teeth the vampire from Salem's Lot? I haven't seen the movie, but your comment about sex-symbol vampires seems accurate. Those guys might be good fantasy material for readers of bodice-rippers, but they are far removed from horror and evil. This guy, on the other hand, is a real nightmare.

Say, how come no contemporary horror movie ever did a cross-promotion deal with Black & Decker or Home Depot?
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Dave K. said...

Yes, that shot is the character Barlow from Salem's Lot. With those choppers, he can break a few blood vessels, but not many hearts.

I wouldn't rule out someday seeing Saw-branded power drills at Lowes. Or the new Tobe Hooper signature chainsaw from Stihl.

Maxine said...

I adored The Thing (John Carpenter remake) and Salem's Lot. I remember seeing the original Omen when quite young and not being able to sleep after. However, the Exorcist (featured in the list to which you link, which I read in the paper version last weekend) I saw around the same time and did not scare me a bit. Also The Shining always features on these lists but I though it boring rubbish. (The book was better,I think, though it is many years since I saw the film or read the book.)
I probably have seen scary films, but I don't like horror (or "deliberately scary" films, so will not have seen all the ones that get talked about, eg The Grudge, The Ring, etc). And memory being what it is....hard to recall....maybe thankfully! ;-)

Dave K. said...

I love the Shining, but Jack Nicholson chews the scenery so thoroughly I can't quite view it as a horror film -- it's more like a very black comedy.

Before seeing your post, I had just updated the entry to mention The Exorcist, which I believe has largely lost its power to frighten.

Peter said...

"Don't you hate when you're dismembering a nubile cheerleader alive and your chainsaw, well, dies? That won't happen when you use a genuine Stanley. Cuts through the fattest femur, and comes out grinding for more."
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Grace said...

Scary is such a subjective thing. I think the most profoundly frightening movie I've seen as an adult is "The Blair Witch Project", but I'm unable to explain why to the people I've met who think it was an absolute snore.

On the other hand, I don't see the point of the movies where you hang around waiting for the teenager to look behind them so the maniac with the pasta maker can turn them into rotini.

I think the scariest thing I saw as a kid was the pilot for "Night Gallery." The show was spotty and disappointing, but the three vignettes in that first episode (especially the third one) kept me up all that night, and on and off for years.

Dave K. said...

I always loved Rod Serling, and never missed an episode if Night Gallery during its brief run. (I used to try to imitate Serling's great voice and delivery, too -- with no success.)

When you mention the pilot, are you referring to the TV movie that featured Roddy McDowell in one story and Joan Crawford in another? I just learned that the Crawford one, "Eyes," was directed by Steven Spielberg.

Grace said...

Hooray for a Serling fan! Goodness knows, both Twilight Zone and Night Gallery look pretty darn campy now, but there were some episodes of both that scared the daylights out of me when I was a kid.

Pilot: yes, that's the one. Both the Roddy McDowell vignette and the Joan Crawford one were enough that I was sitting there glassy-eyed and dry-mouthed. But it was the horrible last one with the ex-Nazi who used to escape into a picture at a museum that really ruined my night (and my week, and my childhood), especially the very last image of the ex-Nazi who has "gotten into" the wrong picture. *Very* wrong, and anyone that hasn't seen that bit can just be totally confused about that. It would likely still mess me up to have to explain.

Dave K. said...

You know, I vividly remember the first two stories, but I can't recall the Nazi one at all. Just goes to show, again, how subjective our fears are.

I think I might be able to rent that Night Gallery pilot via Netflix. It would be interesting to see those stories again -- and refresh my memory on the ill-fated ex-Nazi.

Anonymous said...

My dog's name is Barlow... the incredibly haunting whitish eyed ghoul/head vampire from Salem's Lot. Same eyes... except he's not evil.

My mom actually let me watch that when I was a kid, 10 or so, and it scared me with nightmares. That and the Exorcist. I watched through my fingers.