Halloween approaches, and the Siren is moved to contemplate which movies have frightened her over the years. Let us be clear: we're talking fright, not revulsion, pity, or "Cool-O! how'd they do that?"
The Siren has found movies to love in every category, but horror has never been one of her favorites. Old-fashioned horror movies play best with her. Recent ones too often devolve into the slasher genre, outside of science fiction easily the Siren's least favorite type of movie.
[While we are discussing this, may I call for a temporary moratorium on serial killer movies? Enough already, people, unless you can bring a fresh vision to it, and I don't mean "Let's play some Bach and forget about lighting the set," either.]
Here, with minimal plot details since surprise is of the essence, are four movies that genuinely frightened the Siren:
Dead of Night (1945) I've a weakness for anthology movies; Tales of Manhattan, The Story of Three Loves, even New York Stories. Dead of Night may be the best one ever. People seem generally to agree that the ventiloquist segment with Michael Redgrave is the strongest and most frightening, but I like them all. Yes, even the golf one. Most underrated, in my opinion, is the quiet but poignant "Christmas Party" sequence with a very young Sally Ann Howes and Michael Allen. Perhaps it works best if you see it as I did, knowing that Constance Kent was a real person. The ventriloquist and the Christmas party sequences had the same director, Alberto Calvacanti.
The Horror of Dracula (1958) Him again. Need I say more? Vampires have been done to death but the Siren always loved the Technicolor lushness of this Hammer version and parts of it give her some pleasant shivers. Bela Lugosi was a better Count than Christopher Lee, in my very humble non-horror-buff opinion, but the supporting cast here is much better than the one in Tod Browning's version.
Onibaba (1964) The Siren is very pleased to see that this Japanese film has gained a following. She is convinced that's because it was made widely available at video stores; even her local Blockbuster in Manhattan had a copy. (There is a lesson there, Mr. Studio Suit.) Director Kaneto Shindo and cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda take an apparently featureless landscape--a large, marshy plain full of reeds--and show you how day and night, wind and shadow give it a thousand aspects, most of them terrifying. All this from something that, I suppose, is technically a serial killer movie.
Witchfinder General (1968). I saw this on American Movie Classics so long ago that benighted channel didn't even have commercials, under the name The Conqueror Worm. (The American distributor of this English film threw in some Edgar Allen Poe recitation to capitalize on the success of Roger Corman's Poe cycle.) Some debate whether this belongs in the horror category, but it certainly horrified the bejesus out of me. It was showing in the 10 am to noon slot and when bedtime rolled around that night I was still trying to calm my shattered nerves. Vincent Price plays the titular 17th century witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, who was a real person, god help us. Price was never scarier. In fact, this is one of only a handful of Price performances entirely free from camp or humor of any kind. There's an old, possibly apocryphal anecdote associated with the making of this movie. Price and director Michael Reeves didn't get along. One day Price, trying to put Reeves in his place, said, "I have made 70 films. What have you done?" "I've made three good ones," snapped Reeves. Extremely funny, even if Reeves was forgetting The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, The House of the Seven Gables and Dragonwyck.
So the Siren asks her patient audience: Which films frightened you?