Where there is no imagination there is no horror. – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
“Scary Movies” is the name of my one year ago today column, but it’s about the interaction between porn and escorting; I did do a short piece on vampire sex workers as part of October Miscellanea, but since I really love horror movies, I think we’re long overdue for a discussion of them. Before we start I should mention that slasher flicks aren’t horror; yes, I know that video stores stock them with horror and movie companies often stamp “horror” on the boxes, but that’s about as valid an argument as “the sex offender registry is not a criminal penalty because it is housed in an administrative agency, not in a court office or in an agency charged with carrying out punishment.” Slashers are actually more closely related to porn than horror; both genres grew out of the exploitation films of the 1950s, which featured both gratuitous sex and gratuitous violence. Those in turn were essentially cinematic Grand Guignol, whereas true horror began as filmed “ghost stories”; the former are theatrical, while the latter are literary. Expressed another way, slasher films are designed to shock the body via intense imagery, whereas horror intends to shock the mind via terrifying ideas. Of course some movies encompass elements of both; Alien (1979) and the original A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) come to mind, as does Prince of Darkness (discussed below). But for me, that’s always an uneasy mix which only a masterful director can pull off.
The four “scary movies” I remember most strongly from early childhood are The Birds (1963), The Blob (1958), Gargoyles (1972) and It Came from Outer Space (1953); considering that three of these are considered classics and I can still recognize the horror in them (though it’s outweighed by silliness in The Blob), I think it’s fair to say that I had pretty discerning tastes from at least the age of six. After discovering the Hammer, Amicus and American International libraries I realized I would enjoy almost anything with Vincent Price, Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, then about age 12 I inherited my great-grandmother’s ancient Motorola cabinet set, just in time for the debut of a local Friday-night series playing all the old Universal horror classics I had read about but never seen; soon Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Claude Rains joined their successors in my estimation.
When I was 17, a new local TV station signed on the air; it played the syndicated Movie Macabre series (hosted by Elvira) at 8 PM Saturday and followed it with FOUR other horror movies for an all-night fright-fest I watched religiously every week; if a boy wanted to spend Saturday night with me, he had to understand there would be no hanky-panky unless one of the movies was crap. And some certainly were, but a lot of others weren’t, and by the time their programming changed a few years later I had probably seen as many horror movies as it was possible for anyone my age to have seen in those pre-home-video days. By then I noticed a common thread in everything that really affected me; though I might enjoy a film or story for other reasons, the ones that actually succeeded in scaring me (and there weren’t many) were always those in which the phenomena were unexplained. The more a movie or tale explains the scary goings-on, the more of a handle is provided for my rational mind and the farther the pre-rational monkey-brain recedes into the darkness. But if the events are sufficiently mysterious, unpredictable, bizarre and inexplicable, my reason is confounded and the naked savage within is stripped of her defense against terror, helpless in the face of the primeval Unknown. If I find myself jumping at shadows after a movie, I consider it a good one. And if it actually disturbed my sleep, it’s on the list below (arranged in reverse chronological order). Some of these aren’t as scary the second time, but all feature images, concepts or implications which burned themselves into my brain and will never, ever go away.
1) The Ring (2002) Some say the Japanese-language original, Ringu, is better, but I think the subtitles would distract me from those horrible, incomprehensible images on the cursed videotape. The most horrifying aspect is the absolutely motiveless malignancy of the villain.
2) The Woman in Black (1989) An extremely atmospheric, spine-tingling story of a malevolent ghost who haunts a small English seaside town. This British TV movie is extremely difficult for Americans or Australians to get ahold of, but well worth the trouble; some scenes are literally terrifying.
3) Prince of Darkness (1987) Would have been a better film without the gratuitous gore and a few silly moments which ruin the atmosphere for some, but the ideas strongly affected me and what seemed a throwaway bit of mood-building eventually gave birth to a revelation that poisoned my sleep for days.
4) The Shining (1980) Stanley Kubrick’s masterful manipulation of the spinal nerves yields some of the scariest scenes ever committed to celluloid, but the most terrifying moments of this intensely claustrophobic film are not the most obvious ones.
5) Phantasm (1979) is a very strange, disconcerting look at a young teenage boy’s psyche using fairly conventional horror-movie elements in an original and bizarre fashion. The existence of inane sequels does nothing to rob the original of any of its power to frighten.
6) Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) A made-for-TV creepfest directed by John Newland (of One Step Beyond fame) which expertly plays with childhood fears of nasty, dark little places and nasty, dark little creatures that get people.
7) The Exorcist (1973) Floating beds and floating images, scenes that couldn’t be filmed today and moments of pure chaos utterly horrified audiences in 1973; try to forget about the satires and see it as though for the first time. Often imitated but never equaled.
8 ) Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) This film dares to begin with the last scene, and it doesn’t remove one iota of the suspense. A creepy old town, a maybe-crazy woman and a maybe-vampire keep the viewer’s skin crawling.
9) The Haunting (1963) Robert Wise directed this classic and still-terrifying adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which psychic researchers investigate a house that was “born bad”.
10) Curse of the Demon (1957) Very subdued, very atmospheric and very, very scary. Even the eventual on-screen appearance of the demon does not ruin this film’s understated creepiness.
1) The Thing (1982) As faithful an adaptation of John W. Campbell’s masterful “Who Goes There?” as one could wish for; the Antarctic setting, the Lovecraftian monster, the escalating paranoia, and the knowledge that even one fragment of the invader could doom the whole world…brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
2) Theater of Blood (1973) This isn’t scary at all; in fact it’s more black humor than horror. Vincent Price and Diana Rigg ham it up in a lesser-known companion piece to The Abominable Dr. Phibes. I also dearly love Roger Corman’s The Raven (1963), but that doesn’t even pretend to be horror despite the presence of Price, Karloff, Peter Lorre, Hazel Court and a very young Jack Nicholson.
4) Horror Express (1972) Christopher Lee (in a rare heroic role) and Peter Cushing battle a horrible monster (which is much more than it seems) on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906. Deserves to be much better known.
5) Quatermass and the Pit (AKA Five Million Years To Earth) (1967) The third and finest of the Quatermass series; British science fiction often has undertones of horror, but in this little gem it isn’t content to stay an undertone. Has a similar flavor to the best Dr. Who episodes, but without the humor.
6) Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) The best of the Amicus anthology titles, with five stories connected by a frame. Lee and Cushing lead an excellent cast for good creepy British horror fun.
7) The Night Walker (1964) Barbara Stanwyck is a woman whose dreams become so real she can’t tell them from reality…and then they turn into nightmares. William Castle’s magnum opus, written by Robert Bloch and featuring a fantastic harpsichord-based score by Vic Mizzy (who composed the Addams Family theme just afterward).
8) The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) One of the rare sequels which surpasses the original, and that one is an all-time classic. If you haven’t seen this movie since childhood, watch it again. Trust me.
9) The Black Cat (1934) Lugosi is the tragic hero and Karloff the devil-worshipping villain in one of my favorite movies of any genre; this is the greatest of the Karloff/Lugosi collaborations and arguably the best of the Universal horror classics. It’s spooky, creepy, pre-code sexy and extremely memorable.
10) The Mummy (1932) Unlike the title character in later mummy movies, Karloff’s character is not just a robot; he’s an evil sorcerer who returns from the dead to find his lost love. There are some genuinely frightening moments and an ending which could never have been filmed once the Hays code took effect in the summer of ’34.