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Cinema of Scare: (My) Big 10

Happy Halloween, everyone! If you’re wondering why I’m saying this today, it’s because every day is Halloween. Or should be. Just think about it: the potential for the world to become a neverending buffet of candy corn, dollar-store cobwebs and glow-in-the-dark skeleton earrings.

Of course, this would increase the possibility that more people would show up to work in clown costumes on idle Tuesday mornings. Hmm. Better give this some more thought.

No more talk of clowns, though. Let’s talk about Bill over at Bill’s Movie Emporium. Connoisseur of scare that he is, he dreamed up something called the Splatter Time Fun Fest Awards (love the title, Bill), and that got me inspired. Well, maybe that’s overstating things a bit, since I’m not sure creating a list of great Halloween movies the day before Halloween is inspired. But I’ve been known to make some noise about being a fan of the cliche, so I will press on with my own collection of movies that ruined me for entering darkened houses, babysitting a child sporting a blonde braids-n-bangs combo, or going camping:

1. “Halloween”

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A miniscule budget, no-name actors, almost no blood or gore and a killer who never utters so much as one syllable? Only a genius frightmaster like John Carpenter could take all the reasons why a horror movie should not work and transform them into clear-cut advantages. He mines the bleakest parts of our collective consciousness to bring humanity’s biggest fear — that evil is everywhere, and it’s unstoppable — to heart-stopping life. Brilliant. 

 

2. “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”

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Henry (Michael Rooker, who’s blank-eyed perfection) has a pretty practical theory about killing. “It’s always the same and it’s always different,” he tells his buddy Otis. And here he reveals the dark, twisted purpose of John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”: to remind us that pure, inexplicable evil wears a human face, and one we never seem to notice until it’s too late to scream for help.

 

3. “M”

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When horror movie chatter turns to accomplished serial killer films (see above), Fritz Lang’s distressing “M” is nowhere to be found. Pity that, because it’s a grim, dank, chilly and thoroughly unnerving exploration of a killer stalking Berlin’s children. Peter Lorre makes Hans Beckert (who closely resembles German serial murderer/pedophile Peter Kürten) the kind of soulless villain who’d haunt Hannibal Lecter’s dreams.

 

4. “Nosferatu”

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With vampire books and movies and TV shows overwhelming our senses, it’s all too easy to forget about F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” the film that turned these blood-lapping mythological creatures into pop-culture staples. Without benefit of technicolor, special effects or even sound, Max Schreck’s otherworldly Count Dracula creeps into our dreams and stays there, waiting for the chance to lunge. 

 

5. “The Evil Dead”

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Before the ultra-campy “Army of Darkness,” with Bruce Campbell cloning himself and playing, well, Bruce Campbell, there was “The Evil Dead,” headed for cult classic status with its no-budget effects. But the original rates highly as a horror staple because of its opening credits — the finest and creepiest ever filmed — and the no-holds-barred performance of Campbell, who makes his terror palpable. And don’t forget that tarty tree branch.

 

6. “Carrie”

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“Carrie,” based on Stephen King’s first published novel, is at its heart a pre-“Surviving Ophelia” look at the crushing effects of bullying and how, in the right setting, constant torment can produce murderous rage in the meekest people. Herein lie the chills in “Carrie”: There’s violence aplenty, all of it rained down on fairly deserving and cruel parties, but we’d never see it coming from a girl like Carrie (Sissy Spacek). How profoundly disturbing.

 

7. “Dawn of the Dead”

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Horror movies that scare us are in hefty supply, but the ones that squeeze in pointed commentary about mass consumerism and America’s shopping mall mentality are not. George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is proof positive that scares don’t have to be mindless and blood-soaked; they can spring from the realization that we’ve scaled the roof to escape our problems (or zombies), and now there’s nowhere to go but down. 

 

8. “The Bad Seed”

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Kids — it’s all sweetness and innocence, all fun and games until one of them sets a janitor on fire. At least, that’s the image of youth we get in “The Bad Seed,” with Patty McCormack using her blonde braids and sweet smile to disarm her prey. But she’s hiding a whole mess of devilment behind those patent-leather shoes, and the movie’s hiding an ominous warning: Don’t think you know what lurks in a person’s heart.

 

9. “The Shining”

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That Jack Nicholson, always with the Cheshire Cat-that-gulped-the-canary grin. He plays bad better than most anyone, but he’s at his baddest (and creepiest) in “The Shining,” a ghoulish thriller that blows the “happy families stay together” concept to smithereens. Jack’s googly-eyed overacting works OK here, but what really shivers the timbers is the inspired camera work and a foreboding, oppressive score that pierces your brain. 

 

10. “The Blair Witch Project”

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“The Blair Witch Project” is not a movie that inspires lukewarm reactions. No, this documentary-style thriller, with its queasy footage, unknown actors and largely ad-libbed script, is a love-it-or-hate it kind of movie. Still, there’s no denying this film’s directors accomplish a startling feat: They never show us the villain. And the not knowing what’s threading sticks and piling rocks out there in the dark? That’s the part that’s purely petrifying.

Honorable mentions: “Identity,” “The Omen,” “The Stepfather” (1987 version), “Poltergeist,” “28 Days Later…”

10 horrifying characters

When I’m not savoring this fruitful life of free blogging, I spend much of my free time looking at photos of LOLcats. Now, if you’re about to rifle through your bag-o-insults to find all the best “hey, you’re a crazy cat lady!” zingers, don’t bother. I don’t own a cat, have no desire to own a cat and don’t harbor any particular fondness for creatures that look at human beings as though they are quietly hatching a plot to wipe us off the planet. 

This LOLcat craze, though? For some odd reason, it’s piqued my interest, and today I found a photo that got me pondering the scariest characters ever created — you know, not villains, but the faces that induce chills and (sometimes, if there’s no ominous score to warn that chesty blonde not to walk into that dark abandoned barn) necessitate a quick change of undergarments. Not that I would know what that’s like.

But pay no attention to this digression; it is like the Man Behind the Curtain. So since the Season of Scare is upon us, let’s revisit these 10 frightening creations — classical and modern — that make us cringe, cry, squirm and cry sloppy, unrepentant “I want my mommy now, dammit!” tears:

Take it from Mikey -- talking is overrated.

Take it from Mikey -- talking is overrated.

1. Michael Myers, “Halloween” — Masks do strange things to our insides. They obscure the eyes and mouth, obliterating personality and humanity in ways that make us very, very nervous. John Carpenter went wild with this notion in “Halloween” and created Michael Myers, a hulking, lumbering, knife-wielding mute killer rendered nearly immortal by his desire for victims. The mask makes him scary, but it’s his ability to feed off human terror without so much as a peep that solidifies him as the scariest of the scary.

2. Pennywise the Clown, “It” — Clowns are curious little things, brightly dressed and made up to delight children that end up terrifying them (and plenty of adults, too) into quivering, wimpering blobs of goo. So coulraphobes everywhere quaked in their boots when Stephen King introduced Pennywise, a murderous evil spirit in clown garb. With his pointy yellow teeth and glinting eyes, he’s the stuff of hideous night terrors and a most excellent reason to stock up on nightlight bulbs.   

3. Mombi, “Return to Oz” — The fact that this cheesy 1985 release inexcusably and shamelessly bastardized a timeless classic is beside the point. What’s squarely on top of the point is Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), a witch with a Carrie Bradshaw-like fetish for collecting heads. That’s right. She’s got a cabinet full of heads. All kinds of heads. With eyes that look and mouths that talk. It’s enough to make your inner child cower under the bed with Blankie. And your outer adult, for that matter.

4. Annie Wilkes, “Misery” — With her freakball set of core values and menacing politeness, Annie (Kathy Bates) belongs in a class of her own. She’s the kind of woman who got hugged too much as a child and quite possibly stalked the hell out of every sap dumb enough to wrap his arms around her. When she grins, you see the horrified faces of her victims in the shine of her dingy teeth. Yet there’s an element of childlike innocence about her that’s utterly disarming. You can’t see the menace for the sweetness. What a perfectly freaky combination. 

Rhoda: Like Pippi Longstocking, only evil-er and with more peroxide

Rhoda: Like Pippi Longstocking, only evil-er and with more peroxide.

5. Rhoda Penmark, “The Bad Seed” — Of late Hollywood has become obsessed with making villains out of pasty, dark-haired children with eyes that all but flash “666.” But back in the 20th century (1956) blonde hair shivered our timbers, with evil taking human form in one Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormack). You don’t see Rhoda’s devilment coming, and nothing’s as scary as evil that sneaks up on you (see above).

6. Nosferatu — Vampires are enjoying quite a renaissance these days, though the “True Blood”-styled plasma poachers are more interested in having sex than biting necks. Let us not forget, however, the one who started it all, the Godfather of Vampirism: Nosferatu, star of the so-named 1922 silent film that still chills our bones. Max Schreck’s eerie, goosebumpy performance reminds, and not gently, that simplicity can unnerve in ways that CGI can’t touch. 

7. The horny tree, “The Evil Dead” — With this, the first installment of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, Sam Raimi unleashed a Hoover Dam’s worth of blood and gore and gave us some seriously strange costumed undeaders. None of those things can eclipse the sheer, unbridled craziness of that oversexed forest tree, with its naughty branch becoming a catalyst for the most bizarrely unnerving rape scene ever filmed. It’s like “The Happening” … on angel dust.

Overalls and horizontal stripes never looked so creepy

Overalls and horizontal stripes never looked so creepy.

8.  Chucky — Pediophobia doesn’t seem quite so strange when you stop to consider Chucky, that demonic doll who vaguely resembles My Friend Buddy minus the unflattering bowl cut. Yes, this possessed toy, with his shiny butcher knife, chipmunk cheeks and milky marble eyes is about 472 kinds of terrifying, partly because Chucky taps into that ancient human fear that inanimate objects aren’t all that lifeless. With the advent of Furbies, I ask you: Is that fear really so unfounded?

9. Freddy Krueger, “Nightmare on Elm Street” — Forget that machete-toting lunkhead Jason Voorhees; he’s got nothin’ on the Krueg, Wes Craven’s knife-fingered psychotic burn victim who delights in using the dreams of children and adolescents to snuff them out like Glade candles. Robert Englund makes this guy — and the singsong rhyme that immortalizes him — a character infinitely scarier than his tight striped sweater.

10. The Blair Witch — Everyone has that “things that go bump in the night” concept stashed securely in a safe somewhere way deep down in the dank basements of our psyches. Then movies like the spare but monumentally disquieting “Blair Witch Project” come along and up comes the ageless fear of the dark and what might be lurking in it. We never see the Blair Witch — from a logistics standpoint, we cannot even prove she exists — but the suggestion, the faint whiff of evil, is enough to remind us that what we don’t see is far more terrifying than what we do.

Honorable mentions: Leatherface; Norman Bates; Damien Thorn (“The Omen”); Cruella DeVille.