When I was a kid, I used to love a scary movie. I remember catching the original The Haunting (1963) one night on Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie when I was home alone. Before it was over, I had every light in the house on. When my mother got home she was screaming she’d been able to see the house glowing from two blocks away. The only thing screaming louder than her was the electricity meter.
That was something of an accomplishment, scaring me like that. Oh, it’s not that I was hard to scare (I still don’t like going down into a dark cellar). But, in those days, the movies didn’t have much to scare you with. Back as far as the 50s, you might find your odd dismemberment and impaling, even an occasional decapitation, but, generally, the rule of the day was restraint. Even those rare dismemberments, impalings, and decapitations were – by anatomical standards – surprisingly bloodless. If you were going to scare somebody, all you had available to you were mood and suspense. Storytelling. Style. The Haunting – one of the best and most adult haunted house movies ever – did it with some spooky noises out in the hall and a turning doorknob. Yup, a doorknob. Try to pull that one off, Eli Roth!
True, the early 60s saw the first “splatter” films: gorefests like Blood Feast (1963) from splatter master Herschell Gordon Lewis, but those kind of sensationalistic bloodbaths didn’t make it to my neck of the woods. For the most part, splatter was a rural drive-in phenomenon.
I think most critics agree the turning point was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). The explosive popularity of Romero’s people-eating zombies cracked open the gore door to the commercial mainstream, and by the 70s, blood-drenched moneymakers like The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Halloween (1978) permanently took the goriest gore in from the drive-in cold and made a warm, snug home for it in mainstream moviemaking.
I think a more pivotal turning point was Friday the 13th(1980). Though the early work of Romero and Wes Craven (Last House), Tobe Hooper (Chain Saw), and John Carpenter (Halloween) was often dismissed as just another strain of splatter flick, the more perceptive saw that Romero et al had something more on their mind than just trying to jolt a young audience with a splash of red goo. Some sensed, in their films, a reflection of the violence and moral chaos of a violent and morally chaotic time. Others noted – sometimes belatedly — that Chain Saw and Halloween unsettled audiences more with a skillfully manipulated sense of dread and suspense and the threat of gruesomeness rather than with actual gruesomeness. But Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th?
Friday the 13thtaught Hollywood that you didn’t need Romero’s social commentary subtext, or Carpenter’s gift for mood to make money with a horror flick. All you needed was a cast of forgettable young people, some dark woods, a serial killer armed with the contents of the Sears Tool & Garden catalogue…and then some appallingly graphic mayhem to ice the cake. The blood-letting hasn’t stopped since.
It was at that point I feel like the horror film stopped being scary and simply became horrifying. I’m not saying some terrific horror films haven’t been made since then. Just to name a few:Scream (1996), 28 Days Later (2002), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Shaun of the Dead (2004), this last managing the impressive hat trick of being gory, oddly sweet, and hysterically funny all at the same time.
But for every Scream, it seems there’ve been more along the lines of The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Dreamcatcher (2003), House of 1,000 Corpses (2003), Cabin Fever (2002), Saw (2004 + sequels), Hostel (2005 + sequels) ad infinitum ad nauseum – so called “torture porn” which equates an assault of the grotesque with a good scare. Will they give you the creeps? Give you nightmares? Yeah, sure. So will witnessing a 10-car pile-up with the EMS crews scraping body parts off the pavement.
All of which gets me thinking about those flicks which did give me a serious case of the creepy-crawlies without necessarily having to rely on a tidal wave of Karo syrup.
1- The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Directed by Robert Fuest. Written by James Whiton and William Goldstein.
Camp is about as hard a tightrope for a filmmaker to walk as there is. Lean too far one way and it comes off as forced, lame humor. Too far the other way and it falls into sheer silliness. Phibes manages to walk that walk without a quiver of imbalance. Fuest – who supposedly rewrote much of the Whiton/Goldstein script – delivers up an off-kilter funny-gross horror flick the likes of which you don’t see again until Shaun of the Dead.
Vincent Price is the ingenious inventor Phibes, horribly disfigured in the same automobile accident which cost him his beloved wife. Phibes decides to take vengeance on the surgical team he believes botched the operation by killing them one by one, each through some horrible application of one of the Biblical plagues of Egypt.
Phibes is a unique mix of the near-surreal (Phibes’ palatial underground lair; part Egyptian tomb, part ballroom complete with automaton orchestra), gruesome horror (if you remember the plagues of Egypt, you know what I’m talking about), and some wonderfully outrageous black humor carried off by a rogues gallery of some of the UK’s finest character actors i.e. Terry-Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, Hugh Griffith and others.
How gruesome and how funny? British cops looking at one of Phibes’ victims impaled on the twisted horn of a brass unicorn head ponder: “How we gonna get him off this? You take his head and I’ll take his feet. Let’s unscrew him.”
Phibes was a big enough hit to generate a 1972 sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which pushed the ick and humor both a bit harder and a bit further. Phibes 2.0 has a somewhat less compelling story, but the horrors are horrible enough (how does the idea of a scorpion crawling down your pants grab you?) and the funny is plenty funny. If you like your horrors cut with a grim grin and high style, this is the double bill for you.
2- Don’t Look Now (1973). Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Adapted from Daphne Du Maurier’s story by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant.
Sparked by the box office success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the late 60s and 70s became a golden time for adult horror stories; top-drawer productions made with top-ranked talent intended to be as compelling dramatically as they were creepy. Think The Exorcist (1973) and, toward the end of the period, The Shining (1980). One of the best while being probably the least well-remembered is Don’t Look Now.
Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are a married couple trying to get past the drowning of their little girl with a trip to Venice. They meet a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to be psychic asserting she’s seeing flashes of the couple’s dead daughter in Venice.
Don’t Look Now is a brooding, melancholic story, as much about a marriage breaking under the strain of grief as it is a (maybe) ghost story, and it is that human drama which drives the story. Venice, usually thought of as one of the world’s great romantic cities, in Roeg’s hands becomes a gloomy maze peopled with dark forces and lost souls, and in which – as Sutherland’s character says at one point – “Nothing is what it seems.”
The movie’s final twist provides one of those shocks that is both complete in its surprise, and, on reflection, tragically inevitable.
3- The Night Stalker (1972). Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. Adapted from Jeff Rice’s unpublished novel by Richard Matheson and Max Hodge.
Back in those pre-cable days, made-for-TV horror didn’t have a lot of tools in its toolbox. If you were going to scare people with a TV movie, the standard shock effects – graphic violence, gore, etc. – were off the table. You were left with the basics: telling a good story, and telling it well.
How well did The Night Stalker tell its story? At the time, Stalker was the highest-rated TV movie ever with a 33.2 rating and a 54 share (it still remains one of the all-time top-rated made-fors). In English, that means over one-third of the sixty-odd million TV households in the U.S. at the time – and over half of households watching TV that night – tuned into The Night Stalker. You want a comparison? The TV universe has grown by more than one-third since then, but only absolutely huge TV events – like the Super Bowl or the Oscars – pull more viewers.
Darren McGavin plays Carl Kolchak, a sleazy, annoying reporter on the story of a serial killer plaguing modern day Las Vegas who evidently thinks he’s a vampire. The more McGavin follows the story, the less it becomes about a guy who thinks he’s a vampire, and the more about a guy who is a vampire.
The pace is brisk, and to make up for the lack of gore there are some nicely put-together action set pieces. Punching it along is McGavin, playing seedy, sensation-seeking Kolchak to the hilt, and never better than when he’s working against his fuming boss, the great character actor Simon Oakland. Take this bit from the 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler:
Oakland, fed up with McGavin’s having stumbled into another series of bizarre murders, begins mumbling to himself: “‘Go to journalism school,’ my father said. ‘It’s a good, sound, down-to-earth profession.’”
“Do you want to hear this?” McGavin nags.
“What I want to do,” says Oakland, “is raise tulips for a living, but there’s not enough demand.”
The real auteur here is producer Dan Curtis who was sort of the Chris Carter of his day. Curtis had created the cult classic TV series Dark Shadows, then followed it up with a number of made-for-TV horror flicks (see below). But Night Stalker was easily his most popular, spawning a sequel (not quite as good but a lot of fun) and a short-lived series. While the series’ monster-of-the-week routine grew stale rather quickly, it’s often considered the precursor for The X-Files which, in turn, begat Fringe. So, even if you prefer your gruesomeness appropriately grotesque in the 21st Century fashion, you still might want to visit the grandpappy of them all and see this early bud on the TV horror family tree.
4- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968). Directed by Charles Jarrott. Adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel by Ian McLellan.
For TV connoisseurs, J&H – another bit of Curtis manufacture – is an enlightening artifact from a period in network TV sadly dead and gone. The security that came to the then three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) from their monopolizing the attention of 90% of all TV viewing (today, their share is a bit less than half) bought them the latitude to break up their routine scheduling on a regular basis with special events, original movies, miniseries and the like. J&H was originally aired over three consecutive nights in one-hour installments; the only time the broadcast nets preempt regular programming like that anymore is for the World Series.
And, it was worth it. Although shot on video, Jarrott filmed the story cinematically. For those who’ve only seen video used for three-camera sitcoms, you’d be surprised how visually accomplished this effort is, and how lush the physical period production.
In the many adaptations of Stevenson’s classic horror tale, Hyde is usually portrayed as something animalistic, a monster rather than that dark, integrated side of ourselves. But in this shrewd rendering, the physical changes are subtle; it’s the psyche that changes. Jack Palance – an often underrated actor too often cast based on his battered boxer’s looks rather than his ability – carries off the dual role of the meek, well-meaning Dr. Jekyll and the manic, id-on-the-loose Hyde with aplomb. Palance is backed by an extremely strong cast of fine actors: Denholm Elliott, Billie Whitelaw, Leo Genn, and Oskar Homolka.
This is easily one of the best of the myriad adaptations of J&H, and also one of the smartest. This isn’t a horror story for the Saturday matinee crowd or for the late-night Living Dead gore hounds. Curtis’ J&H is a drama-driven tale of a man liberated and damned by – in essence – an addiction. A taste of that drama:
In the climactic face-off between Jekyll/Hyde and Denholm Elliott, his friend, the wily Hyde tries to talk Elliott out of killing him:
“If you kill me, you’ll be killing Henry Jekyll!”
“You don’t understand, do you?” Elliott replies defiantly. “Jekyll deserves to die!”
5- Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974). Produced and directed by Dan Curtis. Adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel by Richard Matheson.
Ok, last Dan Curtis flick, I promise. I would guess having scored so heavily with The Night Stalker, Curtis felt emboldened to take the helm himself and go back to the prototype: the 1897 Bram Stoker novel that started it all.
There’d been a long line of vampire movies before Curtis’ made-for-TV effort, and an equally long line since. To name just a very few: F.W. Murnau’s 1922 expressionistic grotesque, Nosferatu with Max Schreck playing the vampire as a hideous, other-wordly thing;Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance in a movie that has, sadly, rigor mortised with age; Frank Langella tapping into the count’s sex appeal in an adventurous but ultimately limp 1979 version; and then there was Gary Oldman chomping on the scenery as well as arteries in Francis Ford Coppola’s overheated, FX-laden 1992 take.
But I give this one the Blue Ribbon. It’s got all of Curtis’ signatures: a handsome production, an energetic pace, a strong cast (Jack Palance as Dracula chased down by Simon Ward and, as vampire-killer Van Helsing, Nigel Davenport). At the same time it stays relatively close to Stoker’s original, this was also the first Dracula to wed Stoker’s literary creation to the historical Vlad the Impaler, giving the count a sense of lonely immortality.
It’s also, for its time, surprisingly graphic and even erotic. There’s one scene I’ve never forgotten: Palance baring his midriff, then cutting himself with a fingernail so one of his female victims can lap up his blood and thus be bound to him.
6- The Changeling (1980). Directed by Peter Medak. Written by Russell Hunter, William Gray and Diana Maddox.
The elements are familiar: a big, old house with a sketchy history, strange noises in the night, a mysterious sealed room, a very nasty decades-old secret, clue-furnishing psychics, a psychologically damaged hero. But Medak — ably supported by cinematographer John Coquiilon and editor Lilla Pedersen, and working with a rather smart script and a strong cast – executes so exceptionally well, that even if Changeling feels a bit been-there/done-that, most other haunted house stories still seem like poor relations.
George C. Scott is a composer who rents a rambling country house as a place both to work and to retreat a bit from the world as he tries to grapple with the recent death of his wife and daughter in an accident. But soon there are strange goings-on in the house; signs of some past, buried tragedy, and it is Scott’s wounded nature which seems to make him susceptible to the message.
While there’s a strong dramatic line – Scott trying to heal his own wounds by healing those of a soul not at rest — The Changeling is all about mood, and as Scott slowly peels back one layer of mystery after another to find the truth of the house, that mood becomes all the more oppressive.
One of the best examples in the film of how Medak recharges the familiar is a scene with a medium. She tries to contact the spirit world through “automatic writing,” asking her questions as she scribbles on one piece of paper after another, the scribbles taking rough shape as words as the spirits respond through her. The questions are asked in a soft drone, there is no other sound in the room other than that of her pencil on the paper, the shuffle of sheets as her assistant pulls away one full page and feeds another in under her ever-moving pencil. The subtle sounds, the regular pace of the page shifting are all slowly, subtly unnerving, building to a sudden climax as the medium frantically begins scribbling a page-filling “HELP” over and over and over.
7- I Bury the Living (1958). Directed by Albert Band. Written by Louis Garfinkle.
Despite its lurid title, this is a neat little gem of a psychological horror story starring Richard Boone as the newly-elected director of a cemetery who comes to think he can cause the deaths of those who own plots in the graveyard.
Boone, in one of his few leading roles, catches just the right tone of a man haunted by what he knows is incredible but seems to be true nonetheless, and Band – normally a director of low-budget throw-away sci fi and horror – is surprisingly deft here at walking the line between suggesting the supernatural, or an equally grim but mortal explanation. What Robert Wise did with a doorknob in The Haunting, here Band pulls off with a map of the cemetery – almost a face taunting the tortured Boone with an unsaid, “But you know it’s true!”
8- The Body Snatcher (1945). Directed by Robert Wise. Adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story by Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton.
The Body Snatcher was just one of a crop of moody drama-driven horror tales turned out at RKO in the 40s by legendary producer Val Lewton. Lewton’s unit turned out to be a training ground for some of RKO’s future directorial luminaries, like Wise and Jacques Tourneur (who would go on to direct the classic noir, Out of the Past ). Made on small budgets, all of Lewton’s horror relied on atmosphere, style, and literate scripts. Body Snatcher is arguably the best of the bunch.
Loosely based on the 19th century Burke & Hare murders, Boris Karloff is a carriage driver providing corpses for doctor Henry Daniell so that he can perfect his surgical techniques. When circumstance no longer provides enough cadavers for Karloff, he gives misfortune a little help. Daniell tries not to think about where these uncomfortably fresh bodies are coming from until one comes across his table that he recognizes.
In truth, The Body Snatcher is less a horror story than a brooding drama about two men – neither particularly evil – who become corrupted by their mutual needs and weaknesses. That dynamic gradually pushes the men to reversed roles, where the servant becomes the master.
In the movie’s best scene, Daniell begs Karloff to leave him be, and demands to know why he won’t do so. Replies Karloff, “I am a small man, a humble man. Being poor I have had to do much that I did not want to do. But so long as the great Dr. McFarlane comes to my whistle, that long am I a man. If I have not that, then I have nothing. Then I am only a cabman and a grave robber. You’ll never get rid of me…”
9- Ritual of Evil (1970). Directed by Robert Day. Written by Robert Presnell, Jr., and Richard Alan Simmons.
This made-for-TV flick is actually a sequel to Fear No Evil (1969), which, I confess, I have not seen. Both feature Louis Jourdin as a psychiatrist specializing in the occult. In Ritual he’s looking into the death of one of his patients, and the deeper he probes, the more it appears the woman’s death might be connected to a cabal of devil worshipers.
It is not a particularly novel movie, but an adult story told with style delivering its sense of the creeps not through shocks but through an increasingly pervasive feeling that something dark is at work. A fun watch late at night…with the lights on.
Curse of the Demon aka Night of the Demon (1957). Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Adapted from M.R. James’ story, “Casting the Runes,” by Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester, and Cy Endfield.
After Tourneur left RKO, he spent the 1950s as a freelance director, but his output was never quite as consistent as it had been when he had been one of RKO’s house directors. Curse of the Demon, however — a return to his horror roots –comes damned close.
Dana Andrews is an American psychologist come to London to expose fraudulent (he thinks) devil-worshipper Niall MacGinnis. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that MacGinnis isn’t the fraud Andrews comes to wish he was.
Typical of Tourneur’s work, the strength of Curse is in his ability to unsettle an audience with mood, inference, suggestion. In fact, the weakest part of the movie is during its climax when the demon MacGinnis has been unleashing on people is finally revealed. It’s such a criminally bad effect it comes close to eclipsing the previous ninety-odd minutes of carefully constructed dread and suspense, of MacGinnis’ hypnotic performance, of a strong, smart script…I said “comes close,” but not quite. This is still worth a watch, even though that ending comes with a caution Dana Andrews utters at one point: “Maybe it’s better not to know.”
10 – Below (2002). Directed by David Twohy. Written by Lucas Sussman, Darren Aronofsky, and David Twohy.
Full disclosure: this is not a great horror film. It’s not even a particularly good horror film. It is, however, two-thirds a terrific war movie. There’s so much to like about Below, that even with its weaknesses in mind, I couldn’t convince myself not to include it.
It’s the North Atlantic, World War II, and three survivors from a torpedoed British hospital ship are brought aboard an American submarine commanded by Bruce Greenwood. One of the survivors, a nurse (Olivia Williams) comes to suspect – rightly, as it turns out – that the senior officers on the sub are concealing a big, dark secret connected to the badly explained death of the boat’s original commander.
Up until the story becomes overtaken by supernatural events, Twohy & Co. render one of the strongest portraits of wartime sub life since Das Boot (1981): the close quarters, the lack of privacy, the particular terror of a depth charge attack portrayed as vividly as I’ve ever seen it. The most frightening parts of Below are the all-too-real combat sequences against which the later spooky goings-on can’t hold a candle.
Twohy is also working with a universally strong ensemble led by Greenwood and including Holt McCallany, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Chinlund, Scott Foley, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Flemyng. Even the smallest of parts ring true.
The underlying mystery is potent enough, and it’s hard not to wonder — a bit ruefully considering how well-executed so much of the movie is – about the movie this could’ve been if those concerned had found a natural way to tell their story about good men damned by trying to cover up one natural but tragic mistake.
- Bill Mesce