Works of fiction appearing here are © 2011-2017 by Jack H. Tyler, and are not to be assumed to lie in the public domain.
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Friday, October 28, 2011

Happy Halloween!

          Imagine that, a blog post themed to Halloween...  I'll bet you aren't going to find anything like this anywhere else on the web!  I put a lot of thought into what to do for this momentous occasion, and what I've come up with after all this wood burning is to take a look back at the movies that scared the b'Jesus out of a child those many years ago, explore what made these the scariest ones in my lexicon, and invite y'all to tell some fright stories of your own.  So, like #2 granddaughter likes to say, "Let's get this party started!"
          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
          So, in the movie, The Blob is a baseball-size wad of pink Jello that arrives on a meteorite.  It lands near an old hermit's shack outside a small Midwestern town, and said hermit goes out to investigate.  He finds the meteorite, with said blob of Jello inside, which immediately attacks him, attaching itself to his hand and beginning to digest it.  He runs toward town in search of help, and is nearly run over by Steve McQueen, who is playing a teenage hot-rodder out with his girl for a cruise.  McQueen gives him a ride to the town doctor's house and waits outside while the doc examines him.  By this time, it's over his elbow, and the doc decides he'd better amputate.  He calls his nurse, scrubs up, and goes into his examining room to find the old guy gone.  He has, of course, been eaten.  The blob gets the doctor and his nurse, witnessed by McQueen and his girl from outside.  They flee to town to raise the alarm, and you can just imagine the reception they get from the small-town cops.  By the time they figure out that this is for real, the thing has gobbled up half the town, and is the size of a suburban house.  The final denouement is as heart-stopping as the opening scenes, as the thing has trapped McQueen and friends in a diner, oozed in around the window cracks, and begins to flow down the stairs to where they are trapped in the basement.  I about had a heart attack before they figured it out at the last possible moment.  It's definitely worth a rental, even today.  Just make sure you don't get the crappy '80s remake wherein The Blob is a secret government weapon that's escaped from its tank.

          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
machine!
          That is pretty close to what spiders do, and I think that was the "hook" this thing had on me, being helpless, and watching something come back again and again to slowly suck the life out of you.  The whole concept still gives me the willies, and while I don't lose sleep over movies anymore, I still get that chill up my spine at anything from a movie like this to a documentary that shows spiders paralyzing their prey to be sucked dry at their leisure.  Something deliciously macabre about that, and proof that you don't have to postulate some Ninth Circle of Hell to find a decent monster...


          Let us fast forward to 1962.  I was thirteen that year, and a movie was made of a John Wyndham novel called Day of the Triffids.  Now, that poster looks as lurid as Invasion of the Saucer Men, and maybe for that reason, I was pretty relaxed and jovial as I went into the theater with a couple of wisecracking friends.  Oops, wrong mindset.  The production values were a hundred times better than the poster suggests, the chill started early, and accompanied me home, maybe for the last time.  The movie begins with a man in the hospital.  His eyes have been damaged, and they are bandaged up.  Everyone, including the nurses in his ward, is watching this magnificent meteor shower that he can't see.  His bandages are due off tomorrow morning, and he wants to take them off tonight and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime show.  Nothing doing.  Next morning, nobody shows up to remove the bandages, no one answers the nurses' call, no one replies to his shouts.  Eventually, frustrated and I'm sure more than a bit frightened, he removes the bandages himself to find the hospital nearly deserted, no traffic on the street, almost no one to be seen.  He goes outside to investigate, and finds that everyone who watched the meteor shower, which means virtually the entire population of the planet, is blind.

Yeah, buddy, it's right behind you!
          But that isn't even the worst of it.  No, the little cherry on top is that the radiation has caused some tiny little foot-high plants called triffidus celestius (apparently the seeds arrived with an earlier meteor shower) to grow into the monsters portrayed on the movie poster.  The plants on the screen are not nearly as cartoonish.  They can uproot themselves and slowly move around by dragging themselves with their roots.  The whiplike appendage projecting from the top of the plant is a lightning-fast stinger that attacks any nearby sound, and injects a plant toxin that is going to cause you to drop within a short distance if you are hit by it. After that, friend triffid slithers over to your corpse, sends roots into the flesh, and absorbs everything but the skin. Charming. As the picture above suggests, there is a lot of psychological suspense before we tangle with the monsters, and they don't stand up well in the daylight scenes, though that is when you can really see how many of them there are. They do their best work at night, though, and there are enough of those scenes to satisfy the most jaded man-eating plant aficionado. I'm not sure this film would have made the cut, but we were having heavy rains for a about a week afterward, and the sound made by a stalking triffid is exactly the same as rain falling from the eaves!  I don't know what the record is for going without sleep, but my personal best is about five days...

          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!
          And how, you may ask, did this movie get onto this list?  I was far removed from that child of the '50s, and even if I weren't, it wasn't like a 25-foot shark was going to crawl eight miles to my North Park studio apartment and hide under my bed.  Well, I can't say definitively that this exact movie is the causative factor here, but here are the facts.  I was born and grew up in a handful of California beach towns.  I've lived my life on the shore of the Pacific except for a few years spent in the navy, when I was either on ships, or serving on a tropical island where my main hobby was snorkeling.  From the day I walked out of the theater after seeing this movie, I have never gone back in the ocean again!  You are welcome to draw your own conclusions; I have.
          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!

7 comments:

  1. One of the scariest shows I've ever seen is Nightmare on Elm Street. But that was the first time through. The second time it's not so hot. I'd like to see Day of the Triffids. It sounds like a hoot. Your post brings back a lot of memories. I was in Kodiak when The Blob was playing. Saw it at the base theatre. One of many scary movies to me was The Posidon Adventure. I think the scariest movies of all are the ones that could actually happen. Like airplane crashes, and serial killers, and earthquakes and stuff....But one of the best ones to watch on Halloween is The Headless Horseman. Really enjoyed your post though!
    I wanted to send you and e-mail to let you know I am now a follower on the blog you suggested. I think I will really enjoy it! Thanks for the heads up! See you later, Bonzo

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  2. I've mentioned on our blog and podcast that I'm not the biggest horror fan, but I have seen more than my fair share due to the creature feature host in Chicago, Svengoolie (http://svengoolie.com/). That's definitely how I saw The Blob for the first time as a kid. Amazingly, Sven is still on the air in 2011 and one of the few of the local TV horror hosts still doing his thing.

    Conventional horror has certainly scared me and that's one of the reasons I never grew into much of a horror fan, but the thing that scared me the most was actually a TV movie. I was 7 years old and my mom forbade me to watch a little thing being promoted on ABC called "The Day After" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_After). That only made me want to see it more, so I sneaked into an unoccupied room to watch. That was a big mistake and I had nightmares of the nuclear armageddon for weeks afterwards.

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  3. Hey, guys! Always a treat when two good friends drop by.

    Bonnie, yes, Elm Street was really sinister, making sleep the place you couldn't go without meeting the monster. Posidon, to follow your example, I enjoyed, but didn't find horrible. As Gene Hackman demonstrated, you could use your wits and fight to survive, and succeed; I've always felt like that would be me. Some real life things you don't control, though, like Earthquakes, and nuclear attacks...

    Jeeg, I don't know how I missed this Day After movie, But it's going on my list (Note to CT: I have Inception on my rack). In November '83 our twins had just turned seven, little sister, Nine, was headed toward six, Bonnie was getting tons of overtime, and I would pick up the kids when I got off work and play Mr. Mom all evening, so that's probably why this thing wasn't on my radar; it is now. Wow, Svengoolie looks great! We had one of those coming out of LA in the 60s & early 70s; Elvira replaced him. He was Sinister Seymour (Presents). Less make up than Sven, but an intruding presence in the movies he showed. He always had some fringe hobby (and called his viewers "fringies") that he wove into the show. One week he was showing some giant spider movie, and he was a rock collector. Every commercial break he had a bunch of rocks laid out, and did some ridiculous shtick about them, then came the finale. First, understand, Seymour wore a cape, a bolero hat, and had a thick moustache and eyebrows. Okay, the local yokels have chased this spider back into its hole, and commence to back up dump trucks full of dynamite, until there's enough in there to rival a nuclear blast. They light the fuze and run for cover, when Seymour stands up in the hole with a rock, and announces, "Here's a nice one." KABOOOOOOOM! Movie runs to the credits, we return to the studio, there stands Seymour, black with soot, facial hair completely gone, the brim of his hat torn off the crown and lying around his neck, and smoke rising from every pore. He begins, "You know, I've had about enough of this..." but I never heard another word. I was rolling on the floor, laughing til the tears ran down my leg. This isn't as impressive in print, but seriously, I didn't enjoy another laugh like that until the Seinfeld episode where George pulled the golf ball that had been suffocating the whale out of his pocket. Personal note: I sent CT the promised photo essay of my decor. Did he forward it? If not, and you're interested, let me know, and I will.

    Great hearing from the both of you. Come back by from time to time; you never know what's going to turn up here!

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  4. I, too, enjoyed Nightmare on Elm Street. Of the modern "horror" films, it was definitely the one that had the most going for it. Going back now the original still holds up for me.

    Jaws, though, was part of one of the most traumatic things I've ever experienced. Being a child of the 70s, my family and I went to a lot of drive-in movies when I was little. At the time, they would sometimes have a double feature with a child-oriented movie first and a more adult movie second. One of the more unusual pairings was Bambi and Jaws.

    I must have been about seven or eight at the time. I fell asleep part way through Bambi, only to wake up during the forest fire. That scared me half to death! Going from idyllic glades to walls of flame was not the way I wanted to wake up. Once my parents got me calmed down, I fell asleep again, only to wake up during Jaws when the shark is eating the diver in the cage. I'm pretty sure we left the drive in after that.

    Glad to know I'm not the only one that got scared by the big non-fish!

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  5. I too feel that things that can really happen scare me the most, serial killers and the like, with the exception of those movies where the girl falls down in the woods that she's running through in high heels in the pitch black. That said...

    Nightmare on Elm Street was the scariest thing I've ever seen. To this day I can't watch those movies, not any version. I am not a movie watcher in general, and horror is not on my radar. I'm a giant weiner and have no desire to scare myself (real life can be scary enough, thanks). Another movie that makes my list is actually the 2002 movie Ghost Ship. It wasn't so much scary as it was disturbing and I honestly can't think of a better word. I actually had a recurring nightmare about that scene where all those people are cut in half...bleh.

    My last nomination would be Alien. I saw about 15 minutes of that in a drive-in as a youngster before the adult in the car had had enough. Eventually I saw the whole movie and yeah, gruesome. So in spite of my serial killer statement, all my nominees are aliens, ghosts, and other things that probably can't happen....duh moment, anyone?

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  6. My nomination goes to Alien. I do not scare easily. Jumping out of a bush to scare me will probably get you punched in the face a few times. This movie I was also at with nine and let me tell you, I was ready to leave before anyone else. I did also eventualy see the whole movie and I actually enjoy watching it now. It has given me vivid nightmares and the urge to run as fast as I can to jump onto the sofa so it didn't have a chance to get me. This was of course after using the head in order to relieve some pressure caused by watching this movie in the first place. Funny how childhood memories can stay with you forever. I enjoy a good ghost movie finding that it is usually a ghost that suddenly appears along with loud music that startles you. Alien will forever be the movie that will stay with me as being the scariest movie I ever saw in my youth.

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  7. Wow, more friends! Good to see Nightmare on Elm Street has a following, as well as Jaws. I was an adult by the time Freddy hit the scene, and was able to seperate the movie screen from the bedroom. Same with Alien. They were both scary movies, but they didn't have the access to my psyche that the childhood movies had to make them visceral. Jaws was a whole different animal (sorry, no pun intended). It transcended age, education, gender, everything; it reached you on some level, and you took it home with you, no matter who you were.

    Thanks for stopping by, it's always good to hear from you, and I'm glad you had fun. Again this Friday, if the world doesn't veto my plans...

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