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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…”

Five freaky horror movie scenes

AMC Fearfest ’09, I wish I could quit you.

See, for the past five days this wonderous channel has lured me into its lair of good, bad and wonderfully bad horror movie programming. It’s “The Shining” during lunchtime treadmill marches (does fear increase calorie loss?), “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster” and “Puppetmaster” before breakfast (and sunrise), an all-you-can-stand pre-bedtime “Halloween” buffet. There has to be a threshold between Reality Land and Horror Movie World, and I think I’m about to cross it. Or maybe I have already. Is that what it means when you start approaching every dimly lit corner of your house with your cell phone in your pocket, a cordless phone in one hand and an (admittedly pretty dull) bread knife in the other?

Oh, no — I can see a well-timed viewing of “13 Going on 30” or something similarly lobotomizing in its cheery, mindless optimism might be in order if I intend to communicate effectively with human beings post-Halloween and say anything other than “Did you check the closet? Did you CHECK the CLOSET?”

But until that time comes — and it can’t come until at least 10:30 p.m. on Halloween night, when the last showing of “Night of the Living Dead” kicks off — I’m going to enjoy this bloody, spooky mayhem, and possibly even revel shamelessly in it by recalling five of the freakiest horror movie scenes that still rattle about in my brain:

Meditation, therapy, drugs -- you can't unthink Reagan's uberfreaky spider crawl.

Herbs, meditation, therapy, prescription narcotics -- nothing can make you unsee Reagan's infamous spider crawl.

1. The spider crawl in “The Exorcist” — The revolving head, the pea soup projectile shower, a bucking Bronco bed, Reagan getting a little too friendly with a crucifix — is it any wonder “The Exorcist” has retained its status as an unchallenged horror classic? Frightening scenes abound, but the worst has to be the possessed Reagan’s skin-crawlingly awful crab/spider walk down the steps (visible in the film’s restored version). There simply aren’t words to describe the way this image burns your retinas.

2. Mike Myers’ disappearing act in “Halloween” — John Carpenter’s masterwork of scare is so jammed with shriek-inducing, nail-gnawing moments that it’s hard to proclaim one more frightening than all the others. The closet sequence? Genius. Myers’ face appearing slowly in a dark closet? I’m under the bed. But for me, the film’s best scene is the final one simply because it drives home an elemental fear: You can kill people, but you just can’t kill evil. Donald Pleasence’s grim reaction to Michael’s missing body gives me chills I can’t shake for days.

Could "The Shining" be responsible for the decline of typewriters? Hmm...

Could "The Shining" be responsible for the decline of typewriters? Hmm...

3. “All work and no play”: “The Shining” insanity chronicle — Frame for frame, I’m not sure I can name another horror movie that packs in as many chills and screams as Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly creepy take on a classic Stephen King novel. Every moment is about the atmosphere, about anticipation, and all that tension bubbles over when Wendy (Shelley Duvall, underrated here) discovers the true contents of her husband’s novel. That’s when we know in our bones that this family’s headed straight for hell in a big, flaming handbasket.

4. The hedgeclipper beheading in “The Exorcist III” — Was “Exorcist III” the best of the “Exorcist” films? Hell no. Did it feature one scene so bone-chillingly frightening and unthinkable that it made me walk backwards, then forward, then backwards again in my house for weeks (OK, fine, months)? Bank on it. This little clip is unassuming at best, a throwaway in the bizarre third entry in the “Exorcist” canon. But there’s something about a man in a sheet sneaking up on you with hedge clippers that’s profoundly disturbing.

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"For sale" signs haven't looked the same since "Carrie," have they?

5. The hand that chokes the respectful mourner in “Carrie” — Stephen King’s gripping and original tales of fright don’t always translate to the big screen. (Don’t get me started on “Christine.”) But “Carrie” marks one of the very few times a film elevated King’s talent of turning our hearts to quivering blobs of jelly. No scene proves that better than Sue Snell’s visit to the gravesite-of-sorts of a most unusual teen who doesn’t let death stop her from holding a wicked grudge. It’s one of the few times a scene has moved me to tears, and I mean the kind you need your childhood Blankie to mop up. 

I realize now that my horror movie tastes are unforgivably modern and mainstream, so chime in, thoughtful readers, with your suggestions: What are some must-sees in the horror genre that are guaranteed to make me shake, shiver and just generally squeam whilst hiding in my closet gripping a coathanger?