Friday, October 28, 2005

Frightening the Siren

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?


girish said...

I like my horror movies old and black & white.
I'm a huge Val Lewton fan: Cat People, Curse Of The Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, Seventh Victim.
Tod Browning too: Devil Doll is a perennial fave.
Also Franju's Eyes Without A Face.
And definitely Onibaba.

Bela said...

The Other, based on a novel by Tom Tryon (the actor), gave me nightmares. Flatliners scared me a lot too. And Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

Campaspe said...

Girish, as usual we are simpatico. Curse of the Cat People was a surprisingly sweet story. Of the ones I've listed I liked Onibaba best.

Bela, I found The Seventh Seal more melancholy, but in certain respects it is quite frightening, come to think of it. I had forgotten about The Other, but that one is really scary too. I wasn't scared by Flatliners at all but I have an unreasoning dislike of Julia Roberts that impedes my watching any of her films.

Flickhead said...

Campaspe, there's always Ray Milland, the scent of mimosa, and that chilly upstairs room of "The Uninvited".

Peter Medak's "The Changeling" with George C. Scott is an underrated gem.

Two Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies have excellent spooky atmosphere: "The Pearl of Death" (with Rondo Hatton as the Oxton Creeper) and "The Scarlet Claw" (set in a gothic Canadian marsh).

And when it's 4 in the morning and sanity has slipped into slumber, Polanski's "The Tenant" is a perfect bridge to the coming of dawn.

Exiled in NJ said...

I can only be frightened once so this is very subjective and time sensitive. I remember closing my eyes during The Thing in 1952, and being dreadfully worried about John and Pearl being menaced by Harry Powell when I saw them in the late 50's. Tippi Hedren tiptoeing past the schoolyard is definitely frightening, and the blind Audrey Hepburn being menaced by Alan Arkin and company was scary, but none of these are truly horror films. Except for The Thing, the rest scare me because I identified with the character.

Bela said...

I saw Wait until Dark again last night: it's very very dated, but still fairly scary. I think it was the first time a blind character thought of smashing all the light bulbs in order to foil their foe.

I love Julia Roberts - can't help it. Anyway, it was mostly Kiefer S. who scared me in Flatliners. Come to think of it, how could I omit Don't Look Now, with his scary daddy? Also, The Wicker Man, which used to be shown together with Don't Look Now when the latter came out. Everyone was under their seat. Oh, and what about The Devils. OMG! That is sooo frightening. I remember seeing it, at a matinée, in a London cinema; everyone was chatting away in the queue (I was on my own, reading Archie and Mehitabel), then happily munching on their choccies or whatever, and then.... suddenly.... this incredible hush. Jaws dropped; hands gripped arms. It was amazing.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Onibaba at the New Yorker Theater and got freaked by the spiked mask. I woke up from thinking I was being chocked, the night I saw The Tenant. When I was about seven, I got quite scared watching John Berrymore in Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.

By the way, I liked the brisk, cool weather of Toronto. I had two delicious meals at two creperies, the best being at Art Square. I saw some films at the Al Green Theatre at the JCC. I explained to my significant other that I was certain the theatre was named after a different Al Green than the one who recorded Love and Happiness.

colombina said...

Seven. That movie (serial killer movie, I know, I am sorry :-)) frightened me to the extent that I still - 10 years later- am afraid to even think about some scenes.
I regret mentioning it, I may not sleep tonight :-)

surlyh said...

The Seventh Victim, Psycho, Night Of The Hunter and The Haunting terrified me on late night tv when I was young. And I'm embarrassed to admit that I was comepletely unprepared for The Exorcist.

Annieytown said...

Everyone has chosen such great answers.
Mine is the silly one.
The chairs standing on top of each other.
I ran from the room.

surlyh said...
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surlyh said...

Bela, there is a classic EC comics Tales From The Crypt story that predates Wait Until Dark. I believe it was used in one of the Crypt films. The story is called "Blind Alleys". In it the residents of a home for the blind turn the tables on the home's sadistic director. They lock the guy and his guard-dog in separate rooms, and for several days build a maze of wooden walls studded with razor blades. Then they let the man out in the maze, followed by his now starving dog. I'll let the comic's narration tell the rest of the story:

"Gunner began to run. He HAD to reach freedom before that starved dog CAUGHT him! He ran down the twisting maze corridors...the sound of the loping snarling dog behind him..."

"He brushed against the razor blades, slashing his flesh. He stumbled and got up...ran on...frightened...wild...down through the twisting, doubling-back corridors with the razor-lined walls and the slobbering dog close behind..."

"And then some idiot turned out the lights!"

Happy halloween!

Patrick said...

Here a few that I can think of - Blair Witch Project, although opinion on the scariness factor seemed to flip flop after it had been in release for a while; The Pit and the Pendulum, Aliens. An American WereWolve in London (the dreams were creeepy).

Berlinbound said...

"The Shining"

I've seen it a dozen times and still, when I see the twin girls standing at the end of that long hall beckoning the little boy to follow them on ... to certain death ... I quiver. Even today, the sight of a long, hotel hallway transports me back to that scene and I am forced to remind myself that it was only a movie...REDRUM

Wonderful list!

Bela said...

Surlyh, I saw Tales from the Crypt earlier tonight on BBC1. I'd never seen it before nor had I read your post yet. LOL! It's really frightening. As far as a blind person turning off the light, that film dates from 1972 so Wait Until Dark still qualifies as the first film that... etc. (until someone else mentions an earlier one).

Thought of another scary film: Les Diaboliques - the original Clouzot, not the silly remake. Oh, how I miss Simone Signoret! She was wonderful.

Exiled in NJ said...

I can remember when Les Diaboliques came out and patrons were not allowed to enter the theater in the last 15 minutes. Since I was about 10 then, that did not matter. That is one film that permits not one ray of sunshine into it; not only is the school drab and depressing, but this is repeated when the teacher returns home.

Is there anyone else who thinks Levinson and Link paid close attention to the Charles Vanel detective when they came to creating Columbo?

Another earlier scare-fest from the same director is Wages of Fear. Can anyone imagine a director of today showing us the loss of the first truck with a simple sound?

surlyh said...


Yes, WAIT the movie came well before CRYPT the movie, though the Crypt comic came out in the 50s.

Has anyone here seen THE HIDDEN EYE, Or EYES IN THE NIGHT with Edward Arnold playing blind detecive, Capt. Duncan Maclain? EYES is an early film by Fred Zinneman. I'm guessing there might be a lights out scene in one of these.

surlyh said...

Campaspe might be interested to know that EYES IN THE NIGHT was adapted from a novel called The Odor of Violets, though I have no idea if the title refers to a perfume or the flower.

surlyh said...

Pardon me for running on here, but I found this EYES IN THE NIGHT review on IMDB:

Zinnemann really shines in one ingenious scene set in a pitch dark basement. Arnold, playing a super smart blind sleuth growls "In the dark! In my kingdom now!" and proceeds to outwit a trigger happy thug. Not unlike the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" 45 years later, the only light is provided by a number of randomly fired gunshots. Not surprisingly, this technique is effectively taut and unnerving. If you weren't aware who the director was at that point, it's the sort of thing that makes you go running to your film guide thinking "Whoa. Who directed this?"

katiedid said...

Aliens scared the bejeezus out of me. I only half watched it though, because I spent 50% of the movie with an afghan blanket pulled over my head. Really. Of course, I was like 13 or so when I saw it, so maybe it isn't as scary as I thought it was.

I still have a soft spot for Andy Warhol's Dracula. "I'm looking for wergens." Hee! Okay, so it's not scary. Still, I have fond Halloweeny memories of that. My friends and I went around quoting it for months. Wergens. Heh.

Campaspe said...

Surlyh: Oh yes, I did see Eyes in the Night! It has a marvelous premise in Edward Arnold as a blind detective, but is undone by a silly Nazi-saboteur subplot you can see a mile off. Arnold is great, though. It seems like an ideal beginning for a series, but apparently it never caught on.

It's on my Mystery 50-DVD pack, and was very worthwhile.

surlyh said...

I can't wait to see it. I've recently seen a couple other early Zinneman that are quite good (KID GLOVE KILLER, a sort of early CSI, is a fave).

If I wasn't clear, THE HIDDEN EYE (Richard Whorf, 45) was a second film in the series, not an alternate title. It doesn't appear to be available.

Exiled in NJ said...

Surlyh & Siren: Is Eyes in the Night based on the Ernest Bramah Smith character Max Carrados? This character suffered from amaurosis, 'which causes blindness while leaving the external appearance of the eye unchanged.' This from Julian Symons survey in Bloody Murder.

surlyh said...
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surlyh said...

Exiled in NJ: Here's what IMDB has on EYES IN THE NIGHT:

Writing credits:
Baynard Kendrick (book The Odor of Violets)

Guy Trosper (screenplay) and
Howard Emmett Rogers (screenplay)

Edward Arnold portrays Duncan 'Mac' Maclain.

Tania said...

I'm late, but that doesn't stop me from adding on. No, ma'am.

"Audition" terrified me beyond belief. The Japanese seem to have a lockdown both on the science of cute and the science of disturbing the bejesus out of me. I have never liked horror movies, but this one is Miike and has a horrible twist to it. For one thing, it starts off like a sweet romantic comedy. Then as soon as it has your trust, it decides to punish you for it. Mean, mean Miike.

But the things that truly scare us aren't usually horror films. My husband says to this day, after a lifetime of enjoying slasher horror thrillers, that the scariest movie he's ever seen is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" That movie just does not let you sleep peacefully.

I feel the same way about "Mulholland Drive."

Campaspe said...

T., I didn't see "Audition" after I deliberately read some spoilers and said, "I don't think so." I know dear Diane was simply repulsed by it. Perhaps at some point, but it dropped pretty low on my "wanna see" list. I agree with your DH, "Virginia Woolf" is pretty darned frightening.

Tania said...

Have you seen The Happiness of the Katakuris? Now there's an indescribable film. I think you could characterize it as a musical comedy. You know, the kind of musical comedy that involves shallow graves in the woods. Miike is one weird, weird filmmaker. I never feel entirely comfortable recommending the Katakuris, because I'm afraid of what people will think of me when they realize that this is the kind of thing I laugh at.

surlyh said...

And speaking of blind detectives, I stumbled upon this pulp cover. Be sure to click on Wednesday, November 16th in the calender on the right.

surlyh said...

Because you didn't demand it, more on blind detective Captain Duncan Maclain. The TV series LONGSTREET was based on thr Maclain books:

The series is based on the twelve Duncan Maclain novels created by Baynard H. Kendrick beginning with The Last Express (1937) and ending with Frankincense and Murder (1961) A profile of the Maclain character reveals that Captain Duncan Maclain was blinded in the First World War. After the war, he opened a detective agency in New York City with the help of his partner Spud Savage; Spud's wife, Rena who worked as secretary; and two German shepherds named Driest and Schmuke. The Maclain character also appeared in the MGM films Eyes in the Night (1942) and The Hidden Eye (1945) starring veteran screen actor Edward Arnold.