I’ve touched on something like this before here (“A Bathful of Blood and a Bucket of Giblets or Modern Screen Horror”), but the topic of “what frightens you” (vice presidential candidates to one side) and “have you really ever been scared by a movie” came up in conversation last week and I decided to explore it a bit, and at the same time put out a call to readers to offer their own answers. In my explorations, I uncovered a few points of interest—and I also had a few sleeping memories awakened.
Since I knew—or thought I knew—the answers to these questions in my own case, I opted to try the questions on a few other people and see what they had to say on the topic.
Owing to his proximity, the first on my list was co-critic Justin Souther, who turns out to be something of a hard-sell in the horror department. He freely admits to having been terrified by the “dog” in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) when he was a mere boy and a beardless youth. I took a look at it myself yesterday for the first time in years and was mostly amazed by how young everyone was, and thankful that they identified that reptilian creature as a dog. (Hardcore horror buffs may note that the whole thing bears a striking resemblance to the statue of the giant lizard that comes to life in Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Conjure Wife.) I can’t say it scared me, but then Justin admits it no longer has any impact on him in that department.
It turns out that apart from this little foray into the supernatural, Mr. Souther seems to have spent his formative years deliberately avoiding fright films (though I could swear he’s waxed nostalgic over a tape of the 1933 King Kong that some thoughtless relative recorded over). By the time he reached adulthood and started dipping into the genre, its ability to actually scare him had become minimal. “There are things that I find creepy—or recognize as being creepy—but I’m always aware that I’m watching a movie,” he confesses, and I understand where he’s coming from, though I’m not quite as tough a sell when it comes to being actually creeped out.
The most notable exception for him is his recent exposure to Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) with its scene of Mabuse’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) spirit entering Dr. Baum’s (Oscar Beregi, Sr.) body. “I think what works about that,” he says, “is the crudeness of the effects work. It’s so matter of fact that it’s actually unsettling.” A little poking around his psyche only unearthed one other title that he finds truly creep-inducing—Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), especially the business with the tooth in the wall and that alarming scene where we see someone (possibly the previous tenant) unwrapping her bandages like a mummy unravelling through a bathroom window across the apartment building courtyard. I certainly won’t argue the point, though I’d ammend it to say that the scenes are both creepy and singularly unwholesome.
Casting my net a little—well, a lot—further, I decided to put the question to filmmaker Ken Russell and his wife, Lisi. I already knew that Ken had been terrified—to the point of running from the theater—in 1934 (he’d have been six or seven at the time) by the sight of the Loch Ness Monster in a British cheapie called Secret of the Loch. His later impression was that the monster—which appears from behind a flowerpot at the “bottom” of Loch Ness—was a live plucked chicken. Ghastly (and cruel) as that sounds, research reveals that the monster was actually played by an iguana, who didn’t require plucking. But let’s face it, iguanas were hardly common at the time—probably somewhat less so in Southampton, England. It had only been seven years since Tod Browning used one in The Show, where he depicted the creature as sporting deadly venom and capable of leaping great distances to latch onto a victim’s throat. It was a simpler time.
As an adult, the one thing that stands out in Russell’s mind is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955), a film which certainly ranks high in creepiness and contains one scene of unalloyed classic horror. Personally, it’s never quite produced the frisson for me that I realize it ought to do. This, I think, is simply because I saw it too late. I saw after I’d seen William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959) and his The Tingler (1959), both of which…appropriate effects from it. I’d also seen Robert Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), which uses a variant on the big scene from Diabolique, and I’d seen Curtis Harrington’s hommage to it (he even used its star, Simone Signoret) from 1967, Games. By the time I caught up with the original, it was easy to guess what the outcome would be. As a frightening work in its own right, it’s certainly in the bee’s knees class.
Lisi Russell admits that as a child “nothing scared me as much as King Kong, I’d say, and that cheesy Roman number, The Colossus of Rhodes. I was afraid of giants, especially giant statues whose giant legs straddled the harbor. Go figure.” It seems to me that I recall a previous conversation where Lisi and I discovered we shared a childhood terror of William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953), which probably has more to do with the film’s overall tone and its forced-perspective sets that kept everything in a child’s point of view than its endless footage of two (count ‘em) dubious Martians with very visible zippers up their backs. At least I hope so.
Now, as an adult, Lisi has what I can only call a strange choice, Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977). This is a very odd movie—based on a Dean Koontz novel—about a computer that rapes (the depiction is very abstract) Jule Christie and forces her to bear its child. It’s kind of like a high-tech Rosemary’s Baby. Lisi says, “I was terrified for some reason by Demon Seed. I stayed awake all night. Giving birth to that golden baby computer with the deep voice did a number on my mind. I wasn’t expecting it. I can’t think of anything that scared me as much. If I saw it again, I’d probably just laugh.” I haven’t seen it in years, but I tend to agree with her suspicions on the results of a renewed acquaintance. Still, there’s probably nothing—not even comedy—that’s as personal as what frightens you.
Closer to home, I decided to ask Marc McCloud of Orbit DVD what scared him. I figured (rightly as it turned out) that Marc was apt to have some unusual choices. “Getting scared.That’s a complex question,” he admits. “Even though my parents let me stay up and watch the late night horror hosts sometimes, those old Universal movies never really did the trick, as much as I loved them. I guess my top 3 as a kid were: 1.Fantasia (“Night on Bald Mountain”), 2. Pinocchio, 3. The Wizard of Oz”.
I suspect I’d have been scared by the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia (1940) if I’d seen it before I was in my 20s. I’m less certain about Pinocchio (1940), though I’ll freely admit that I always found the part-boy-part-donkey business creepy, if not frightening. It’s interesting, though, that Marc cites two movies from Mr. Family Entertainment Disney. Personally, I’d add Sleeping Beauty (1959), which, as I’ve confessed before, I viewed from beneath a theater seat in Kannapolis, NC when it first came out. As for Oz—well, who among us hasn’t been disturbed by winged monkeys and green-faced Margaret Hamilton?
Marc brings up a very interesting—and I think very telling point—in his observation that “trailers growing up were much more effective, especially for a kid, and provided bad dreams for months to come. The scariest of the bunch were Fantastic Planet, It’s Alive and Magic (I still will not watch this film due to the trailer).” I can’t say those did it for me, but I was as grown up as I was likely to get by the time they appeared. Still, I won’t watch Magic (1978) either—the movie where Richard Attenborough earned the sobriquet “Attenboring” from me. The prospect of trying to stay awake through it a second time scares me.
At the same time, I know my childhood is littered with trailers that were far more terrifying than the films (seen much later) ever managed to be. I’ve mentioned Terence Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf (1961), but Marc’s comment triggered memories of nights spent in dread of sleeping alone thanks to the trailers for The Blob (1958), The Head (1959) and 13 Ghosts (1960). Come to think of it, I never have seen The Head, which may be just as well.
Marc’s adult choices are interesting. “I prefer films that disturb me to the point of being scared like Session 9, Begotten (only film in 30 years to give me nightmares), Close Your Eyes and this year the excellent Ils (Them).” What interests me—apart from my own reaction to Session 9 as a movie that disturbed my by sheer tedium—is that I’ve never seen three of these titles. Now I feel like I need to. (Just what I need—more things to watch.)
At the same time, we’re in complete agreement on this—“As an adult, the only film that I’ve ever been scared at the theater was The Exorcist III. That one scene is still burned into my brain.” Anyone who has ever seen William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III (1990)—especially, if they saw it in a theater—will not need to ask what that “one scene” is. I won’t attempt to describe it, since it would harm its impact if you’ve yet to see it. I will say this much—it’s the most brilliant use of false scares to lure the viewer into the belief that nothing is going to happen, followed by a something happening that invariably has an entire audience levitating over their seats. There’s a lot more to the film than that—including a chilling performance by Brad Dourif—but that scene is one for the history books where fright is concerned.
Certain things occurred to me while talking about this subject and reflecting on it. I had, for example, completely forgotten about my youthful horror over Invaders from Mars until the memory of it was pricked. And I do wonder how much impact living in Florida as a kid added to the film with its scenes of hapless victims being sucked into the sand. That in itself brings forth the question of how situational our fears of movies might be—that and how much we work ourselves (especially as children) into a state of fear. I know, for example, that there was an occasion when I managed to be absolutely terrified late one night after watching The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) that if I opened the curtains of my grandmother’s living room, Lon Chaney, Jr. in all his bandaged glory would be staring (through his one eye) right back at me. I was maybe 10, but it wasn’t even the first time I’d seen the damned movie. I’ve no clue what made it different that night. (And, no, I didn’t open the curtains.)
We’re definitely an easier target for being scared by movies when we’re younger. (Does that make us a little masochistic for subjecting ourselves to it?) Far and away the biggest fright the movies ever gave me as a child was the Drop of Water sequence in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1964). The rest of the movie—apart from Boris Karloff’s hammy introductions—didn’t do much for me, though I wonder if that may, in part, be because American International Pictures recut it for the U.S. release, putting “A Drop of Water” at the beginning of the film rather than the end where it was in the original Italian version. I guess they wanted the film to build up to the Karloff vampire story, but the problem is that nothing could live up to the scenes in The Drop of Water where the dead woman (who now appears to me to be wholly animatronic and I suspect reminded me of the witch outside the spook house at the Myrtle Beach Pavillion in those years) comes back to life to reclaim her property. It still packs a high creep-out value today.
Seeing Karloff introduce the episodes in Black Sabbath prompted another memory—Karloff’s TV series Thriller (1960-62) and John Newland’s episode Pigeons from Hell (1961). I give this the place of honor as the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. An adaptation of the Robert E. Howard short story of the same name, it deals with two brothers (Brandon De Wilde, David Whorf), whose car gets stuck in the swamp country of the American south and who find both the unholy pigeons of the title and far worse in a crumbling plantation house. I can’t recall the circumstances that led to me being allowed at the age of six to stay up to see this, but I know that I got as far as the image of David Whorf with blood streaming down his face, mindlessly lurching toward Brandon De Wilde with a hatchet before I high-tailed it to bed. It would be 13 years before I saw the rest of the film.
When I finally got the chance to face up to this youthful nightmare, I was 20, living on my own and, in my own mind, quite fearless. I was quite prepared to be utterly baffled by what had so terrfied me and settled in—in an appropriately darkened room—to watch Pigeons from Hell on a 13 inch TV set. OK, I conceded, the set-up was pretty creepy, and even Karloff’s campy intro (“And our young friend was alarmed by a flock of pigeons! Harmless, you say? Well, you’ll see that he has good cause for alarm—for those were no ordinary pigeons, they were the pigeons from hell!”) wasn’t without its shudder factor. Yeah, and the crumbling house was definitely unsettling and the sense of dread and darkness hanging over the whole thing was almost tangible. Before I knew it, I found I was nearly as terrified—or more properly, utterly creeped out—by the film as I had been years earlier.
It would be another 15 years before I caught up with Pigeons from Hell again (this was pre-VCR era), and I was more than a little surprised to find when I did that it still scared the hell out of me. By that point I was able to record the show, so I’ve had it ever since (though some Thriller episodes were released on VHS and laser, Pigeons was not among them). I can look at it now and understand why and how it works—it’s all about the atmosphere and what you don’t see (there’s really only one close-up of the horror in the house)—but know that has never managed to entirely dispell the fear it generated in me 47 years ago.
While nothing quite tops Pigeons from Hell on the list of what scares me, I’ll certainly own up to finding F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) a singularly chilling work—and the only film in living memory to induce a nightmare in my adult life. And there are pieces of a lot of movies that are not without their effect in this realm. There are, for instance, moments in T. Hayes Hunter’s The Ghoul (1933) that still strike me as extremely disturbing—perhaps this is a case of not getting to see an old horror picture until late in the day. I’d never been actually scared by the classic horrors on TV when I was a kid, but when I finally saw James Whale’s long-lost The Old Dark House (1932), it was on the big screen and damned if it didn’t make me jump more than once. The Ghoul may be a similar case. Size and the atmosphere of a dark theater do matter.
There are other notables that I should mention in passing at least—Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) and Ken Russell’s Gothic (1987) both have that atmosphere of dread, for example. The scene in Russell’s Lisztomania (1975) where Wagner (Paul Nicholas) vampirizes Liszt (Roger Daltrey) has always given me a little chill—I think because it manages to be both disturbing and weirdly erotic. (I suspect the erotic aspect is what makes it disturbing.) Other movies have small moments in them that produce a shudder or two. They needn’t even be especially good movies. Radley Metzger’s version of The Cat and the Canary (1979) isn’t more than entertaining, but there’s a scene where we see surgical instruments laid out by “the Cat” for purposes of torture that bothers me somehow. There are similar moments in William Malone’s stylish, but silly FeardotCom (2002).
Who can say what will strike a chord of fear or something like it in a viewer? The movies have been working at it for years—with varying degrees of success—and there’s no sign that they’ll be stopping any time soon. In any case, there you have some of the things that have scared a few of us over the years. Anyone want to add some of their own personal horrors to the list?