Igor, to the vault! (Dude the Insane Beagle looks at me with an expression that fairly screams, "Who's Igor, and what's this vault you speak of? There food in there?")
While he's figuring that out, I'll lay out some of the terms and conditions for these Scariest Movies. First, virtually every movie that's intended to frighten you succeeds while you're sitting in the theater (or on your sofa) with your suspension of disbelief fully engaged. What I'm talking about here is the movie that accompanied you home and made you check under the bed before you got in it, lose sleep, or otherwise change your routine because the movie fright was still with you. Narrows it down some, yes? Let's proceed.
First, let's take a look at the things that didn't frighten me. Oddly enough, the genre that actually bears the name Horror Movie I don't find all that horrible. The classics, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, I viewed as boring gab-fests, even as a small child. Frankenstein is the story of a man who sewed a bunch of body parts together and reanimated the result with a lightning strike. If his nincompoop assistant hadn't stolen the wrong brain to put in it, there wouldn't even be a movie here. I always felt like the monster was a much more compelling character than the doctor. The Wolf Man is about a guy who has a really bad hair day every time the full moon rises, kills some people, then wakes up the next morning naked in a strange town wondering just how much he had to drink last night, anyway. None of this is his fault. He didn't set out to be a bad guy, he has no control over it, and it's always sad when the ignorant peasants chase him up a tree with pitchforks, and set it on fire. If anything, he's more sympathetic than the good doctor's reassembled corpse. And then we come to Dracula. Dracula, and every vampire movie since, is a chick-flick. It is a movie about the ultimate date gone wrong. I'm sorry, guys, but if you think you're straight, and you're digging on Twilight and its sea of imitators, it might be time for a Brokeback Mountain check. The Mummy didn't get good until it was remade with modern special effects, by which time I was too old and cynical to be frightened by a movie, and The Invisible Man... What is this guy, six years old, wearing a pair of pants out along a country road, frightening innocent travellers? I'm sorry, folks, but if I ever turn invisible, I'm heading straight for the Ladies' Room. (Speaking of changing your routine, there's something to think about next time you're in there!)
The modern ones, your Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw, and so on, maybe I was too old again, but these aren't horror movies to me. They get their impact from the shock effect, and how many times does an armed madman jump out in front of the camera before you get numbed to it? Now, I did find the Nightmare on Elm Street series briefly interesting, once I caught on to the fantasy aspect of it. These other guys you could avoid. Nothing made you pay a midnight visit to the empty house outside of town; you didn't have to break into the abandoned strip mall; it probably isn't necessary to take your clothes to the laundro-mat at 2:00 AM, but you have to sleep. That was when good old Freddy Krueger paid you a visit, taking over your dreams and making them real. The only escape was confrontation with a guy who was very good at what he was doing. Unfortunately, as with all ideas that bring in some money, they proceeded to beat the life out of it.
No, what I have always enjoyed is what is colloquially called the Monster Movie. I uniformly enjoy the story about the predatory life form that has never been encountered before, whether it comes from space or has hidden here on earth throughout human history. I will cheerfully suspend any amount of disbelief, and the only way a studio can drive me away is to make their monster so ludicrous that it makes me laugh. Take a look at this abomination, and I can save a couple of paragraphs of explanation. I also enjoyed the BIG monsters, but truthfully, they weren't all that scary. You could see Godzilla coming when he crested the horizon, and the ground was probably shaking well before then. There were a few other hugies, both living and robotic, and all suffered from the same problem: You'd have to be deaf, blind, and paralyzed to get trapped by this thing.
All right, enough buildup already! What did it for me? You're probably going to be surprised at how bad some of these things are, but the first film that put a twist in my diaper introduced Steven McQueen to a long and successful film career, and a certain tyke of nine summers to the concept of looking under the bed, through the closets, checking the heater vents, and then lying awake for hours, jumping at every tiny sound until exhaustion finally had its inevitable effect. The Blob was released in 1958, and by today's standards, the special effects were laughable. Of course, people who live in a future time of holodecks and similar forms of entertainment are going to look at what we have now in our movies, and say that the special effects are laughable. It's all relative.
|The Blob, having just popped into the late-night|
matinee for a snack
Moving on to the age of ten, we arrive at 1959's The Beast from Haunted Cave. My mother took me to this on one of her infrequent visits to town. Before you question what kind of mom takes a ten-year-old to a movie like this, you should know that she also took me to Francis the Talking Mule Joins the Army; she was kind of clueless about young boys. The aforementioned Beast in this lavish production didn't resemble the movie poster in any way but shape. It was a vaguely humanoid ball of hair that had set up housekeeping in an abandoned mine, and anyone who wandered in (why?), lost hiker, forest ranger, or the girlfriend of a fugitive bank robber would be ambushed, glued to the wall, and have their blood sucked out in increments whenever the thing got hungry, leaving them too weak to fight back or attempt to escape.
|The Beast in all its hair-enshrouded glory, probably the|
only monster in history to be made with a cotton candy
|Yeah, buddy, it's right behind you!|
We now turn to the grandfather of the summer blockbuster. It's 1975, I'm twenty-six years old and about to start my family, and you wouldn't think I'd be susceptible to the spell of Hollywood any more, however... There are movies that transcend age and conventional wisdom, and this bad boy was it. It spawned a school of sequels, each progressively worse than the one before, but none of them detracted from the glory of the original. You know you've gone to a monster fish movie. You know people are going to be killed and eaten before your very eyes. Chrissy goes into the water; it's obvious that's going to happen. But from the first two notes of that magnificent theme: Duh-dunh... duh-dunh... They have you. Dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh, and you're off on a ride that in many ways has never been reproduced since. Denise Cheshire, known mainly for stunt work, plays Chrissie when she's in the water, and if there was an Academy Award for Best Performance Without a Spoken Line, it should be on her mantle. We don't see the shark during this attack, or the next one, but her face, her incredibly expressive eyes, draw us into a horror ride that goes on and on for two unrelenting hours, during which, terrified as a two-year-old, we are utterly unable to look away. This was an unbelievable tour de force that launched the career of a 28-year old Steven Spielberg. If you love the man's body of work, and who doesn't, this is where it all begins.
|Oh yeah, it's got her!|
I'll wrap up with a couple of other Halloween-themed tidbits. First, I've been looking forward to Grimm. Premiers tonight on NBC, check your local listings, blah-blah-blah. This hasn't been over hyped, so it's probably real good, or it's already been cancelled. Naturally, my crazy schedule has me at work tonight, so I'll not be watching. If anybody has any opinions on the first episode, I'd be pleased to hear them.
Second, there is a local jazz station, of which I am a member, staunch supporter, and some people say, pimp. They stream their programming on-line, and there is a link for that in the sidebar. In case you miss it, here it is again: jazz88.org/listen.php. Sunday nights at 8:00 PM Pacific Time, an old knowledgeable gentleman named Lou Curtis does a 2-hour show called Jazz Roots, on which he plays music from the dawn of recording technology. I'm always amazed when I hear something from 1904, and say, "Wow, I thought Mick Jagger wrote that!" This Sunday, and every Halloween, he does a show of songs with spooky/scary themes. I'll leave you with a lyric from one I heard last year, done in the style of an Irish folk quartet:
Don't you linger in the outhouse,
'cause something lurks in the hole.
Just finish up your business,
pull your pants up and run
if you don't want to lose your soul!
See you soon. Now, get out there and live life like you mean it!