Wednesday, December 29, 2010
My Top Twenty Scariest Movies---Part 1
Given the number of ostensibly scary movies out there, it's kinda remarkable that so few of them are scary. Genuinely frightening moments are very rare in films---and some of the movies on this list made it because of just one scene. The list is entirely about scary, by the way...that is to say, flicks that have scared me. They might not be your idea of scary at all. And while there are some well-known horror classics on the list, there a lot of classic horror movies, really great films, that simply aren't scary...James Whale's Frankenstein movies come to mind.
Okay then, that said...on to the list.
I've already discussed F.W. Murnau's Dracula adaptation over on my vampire list... don't have too much to add here. Suffice it to say that it richly deserves to be on this list too, primarily because of the visuals...Max Shreck is really, really bad to look at, and he's used in very startling ways. This is not one of those non-scary classics.
Man, 1932 was an amazing year for frightening movies. You had The Island of Lost Souls, Freaks, and The Mummy, the first two so balls-out that they were both pulled from theaters after a few days. Of the three, Freaks is perhaps the most scary and unsettling. Among other things, it really is in terrible taste, because it uses all these actual sideshow specimens...right from the gitgo, it makes you feel like your skin's on way too tight. But it only builds from there, and takes you well beyond mere queasiness. Story involves a circus ballerina named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) who marries a sweet little midget named Hans (Harry Earles)...in cahoots with her boyfriend Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor), she plans to murder the tiny guy for his inheritance. But she makes the other freaks mucho suspicious at a grotesque feast in which they welcome her into their community with a chant that goes "Gooble gobble, we accept her"; it's not her cup of tea at all, and she, well, freaks, and reveals that she's got that thing going on with Hercules. Hans's buds, who include genuine hermaphrodites, pinheads and other strange sorts, figure out that the midget's in danger, and one rainy night, they all pay a visit to the nasty normals. Particularly amazing is a shot of the armless-legless guy (Prince Pandian) squirming through the mud with a knife between his teeth. The malefactors get their comeuppance...Hercules is singing falsetto at the end, and the last shot is of the once-beautiful Cleopatra, turned somehow into a wretched feathered chicken-woman.
MGM cut a lot out, and there was even a version with a tacked-on ending showing Hans all happy and rich, but it didn't rescue the movie at the box office. It was directed by Tod Browning, the Dracula guy, and it pretty much destroyed his career, even in the early thirties, when they truly liked their horror movies. It's that great. One scene in the movie reportedly made F. Scott Fitzgerald puke. When you coax the man behind The Great Gatsby to chuck one up, you've really made your contribution to human history. No Joke.
3.Island of Lost Souls--1932
This one was roundly denounced too---it was based on a story by H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and even he flew into a high dudgeon and condemned it. It was directed by Erle C. Kenton, who did other horror movies (House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, and Ghost of Frankenstein), but none of those delivers anything like the kick that Lost Souls does. It's seriously creepy and atmospheric, and the climax is genuinely terrifying.
Richard Arlen plays a poor bloke named Edward Taylor...his boat sinks,and he's picked up by a supply ship that's headed for Dr. Moreau's domain, where he gets stranded. The island's extremely dark and dank, and populated by some natives who aren't clearly seen, but plainly very very weird...Moreau (Charles Laughton) has enslaved them, and keeps 'em in line with a bizarre preacher-slave, the Speaker of the Law (Bela Lugosi), plentiful doses of the lash, and trips to the unspeakable House of Pain. He's also got this hot black-haired jungle babe, Lota (Kathleen Burke), who he'd really like Parker to bone, for reasons that aren't immediately clear. Interested to say the least but very suspicious, Parker discovers that Moreau's slaves are actually animals, who've been converted into quasi-humans through ghastly, excrutiating surgery; Lota is Moreau's crowning achievement, although she---and all the other slaves--- are constantly sliding back into their previous forms...the doctor wants to see if he could mate her with a human.
This flirting with bestiality is probably what got Wells and everybody else so riled, and it's nasty enough, but then you have the big finish, when the "manimals'---I believe it was Forry Ackerman's term--- realize that Moreau breaks his own laws, "What is the law? Not to shed blood"---and they rise up and go after him, dragging him off to the House of Pain for a little surgery of their own. Very nightmarish stuff, particularly when we see all these black claws smash into the glass case where Moreau keeps his surgical implements, and come back out with scalpels and saws. While Moreau's being rearranged, Parker escapes the island in a rowboat, along with a ship captain and a chick who's more acceptable than poor Lota...with the island flaming in the background, Moreau's sadder-but-wiser assistant Dr Montgomery says, "Don't look back..." one of the best last lines ever. Movie was banned in Great Britain until 1958. What more can you ask?
The hits just kept on coming in '32, with the last of the big three showing up right at the end, in December, Karl Freund's The Mummy. Freund was a great photographer who started out at UFA in Germany; he lensed Metropolis among other things...not bad. But by the early thirties he'd gotten the hell out of Deutschland (smart boy) and came to the US and did stuff for Universal. He got the Director of Photography credit for Dracula, for example, and apparently co-directed it, alongside Todd Browning; he also went on to direct a great Peter Lorre flick called Mad Love, and film stuff for John Huston.
The Mummy was sorta his very own version of Dracula; it's a semi-remake, in my opinion, even has a Van Helsing character played by Dracula's Edward Van Sloan. There weren't any vampires, of course, but you did have an extremely old living dead guy from an exotic place...the sub-plot about an reincarnated lost love wasn't in Dracula, but it would be borrowed in a lot of Dracula movies later on. The scariest scene comes very early, and it's a classic sequence...benighted Brit archeologists have gone and dug up Imhotep (yes, just like in those recent stupid mummy flicks), and one of the scientists makes the very big mistake of reading the Scroll of Thoth in the mummy's presence, thus bringing him back to life and getting scared literally out of his mind by him. There isn't too much shown, although we do get a good look at the fantastic Jack Pierce makeup on Karloff in his coffin...as the scroll is read out, the camera drifts down to Karloff's chest, and we see one of his hands stirring, just a little bit. After that, it's all back to the idiot who's done the damage...a dessicated hand reaches to pick the scroll up...we observe the scientists's horrified reaction, then, then see a couple of bandage-ends dragging out the through the door. Some other guys come in and find their colleague laughing hysterically, saying "He went out for a little stroll."
Rest of the movie isn't as frightening, and it's not very much like what most people think of when they think of mummy movies...Karloff looks really dry, but he isn't going around in bandages and doesn't drag one foot; he tracks down the modern incarnation of his lost love Ankhesenamun and tries to get her to become a living mummy with him. Whenever someone really gets in Karloff's way, he simply kills them by fixing them with his terrifying gaze. The special effect with his glowing eyes is truly something---I guess it's actually a painting or a retouched photograph---and he convinces you that he could murder you just with his stare. The Nazgul in Lord of the Rings should've been based on this stuff, although I would've cribbed Lee Van Cleef's features.
Anyway, Imhotep goes too far at the end...he's about to mummify the girl, but the statue of an offended god comes to life and blasts him...we get a fairly explicit decomposition scene, rare for the period (there's an even better one in a Lugosi film called Return of the Vampire) and the girl's reunited with her modern boyfriend.
Bottom line; just like the other two flicks from 1932, The Mummy is both a horror classic and has one genuinely scary bit, comparable to Laughten's demise in Island of Lost Souls, and the climax of Freaks.
Here's a story for you.
My father in law, Charles Shedd II, was in the Navy in 1944 when The Uninvited came out...it was movie night, and he was with a bunch of sailors who came out with a lot of catcalls and comments and laughs. But then, about a third of the way through, they all started settling down, and got real quiet...by the end of the movie, they were completely subdued and intimidated.
The Uninvited was very effectively directed by Lewis Allen; it was his second outing as a helmer, and I don't think he ever did anything else even remotely as good. It's an excellent exercise in slow-burn terror, and very much a classic haunted-house thing, depending on mood rather than shocks, although it does have some extremely creepy visuals supplied by ace Paramount FX men Gordon Jennings and the great Farciot Edouart (wonderful Hollywood name).
Story's set in England...WWII doesn't seem to be going on...brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) discover a house right at the edge of a cliff, and decide they just have to have it...they buy it from Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) who's eager to unload it, over the objections of his lovely daughter Stella, played by Gal Russell, whom Roderick starts to fall for. Turns out Stella is deeply attached to the house, because it reminds her of her dead mother, the saintly Mary Meredith. But that's not surprising, since mom is apparently still hanging around the place. All sorts of things start worrying the Rodericks, the scent of mimosa,wilting flowers, ghostly weeping, and a frigid rotten atmosphere in an art studio where Stella's dad was carrying on affair with his hot Spanish model Carmela, who's dead too, and also lingering. Things just get creepier and creepier...there are some cool plot twists...at least one character dies of a cardiac. Won't give away the ending, but it's extremely satisfying. As nearly as I can tell, the movie is the first Hollywood entry in the tradition of ghost movies like The Haunting or The Changeling, and it's very, very good stuff. Those sailors were quite right to shut their mouths and sit still. I'm proud of 'em.
6.The Body Snatcher---1945
I've already run my mouth quite a bit about this one, in my villains' list. Boris Karloff, as John Grey, absolutely owns this movie, delivering his coolest performance, one of the best characterizations in any Hollywood flick. But that isn't why Body Snatcher is on this list. Basically, it's yet another movie that builds and builds to one terrifying climactic sequence. It was directed by Robert Wise, who was a member of Orson Welles's original mafia, and wound up doing stuff for the Val Lewton unit at RKO...Wise became a great generalist director, operating in all sorts of genres, ranging from material like Sound of Music to The Sand Pebbles to the first Star Trek movie. In 1963 he turned out one of the scariest movies of all time, The Haunting, which figures later on this list, but he was already a master of horror back in 1945; I revisited The Body Snatcher in a Best Western in Flagstaff a while back, and it really knocked me out. Shortly afterwards, me and Steve Hickman had a long conversation about it, which totally cemented my reaction.
Film's based on the Robert Louis Steven story, of course...the story was good, but the film is much better, very nicely fleshed out. Henry Daniell plays Toddy Macfarlane, a cold-fish doctor who buys snatched bodies for dissection from Karloff's Grey in post Burke-and-Hare Edinburgh. Karloff is a pretty damn terrible fellow, but he's also rather more sympathetic than Toddy...since the body snatcher has a lot on the doctor, the doctor decides to off him, and this all leads to a sequence in which Toddy, rocking along on a rainswept night in a coach beside a dead woman, starts hearing Grey's voice saying, "Toddy...Never get rid of me, never get rid of me," and things just deteriorate from there...
For my money, this movie is the best of the Val Lewton horror outings, which is really saying something...some people prefer Cat People, I know, and I'm not knocking that, but I prefer Body Snatcher. Besides, my favorite Jacques Tourneur movie is Curse of the Demon, which is coming right up.
7.Curse of the Demon--1958
Jacques Tourneur is another great master of the horror form...if you saw Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, you were watching a great big homage to Tourneur's masterpiece, although the approach was pretty different in most ways. Curse of the Demon is the American title of Night of the Demon...if you hunt it down, make sure to get the longer version, which makes much more sense, and is altogether more satisfactory. The movie is based on Casting the Runes, a story by the fantastic M.R. James, and it's a very well written adaptation. The slant is archetypal horror-story anti-rationalism .I'm not that hostile to rationality myself, but a contempt for logic and reason can result in some cool horror goings-on.
Scientific-materialist psychologist shithead Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in England to attend a conference on paranormal phenomena, which Holden has spent his life debunking...he's rather surprised to meet a couple of colleages who let him know in no uncertain terms that his worldview's all wet. An Indian guy in a Nehru hat and jacket makes a particular impression on him, when he proclaims his absolute belief in demons. Later, Holden runs into Dr. Karswell (Niall Macginnis) who has been a particular object of Holden's scorn. Karswell asks him rather nicely to stop busting his chops; Holden won't give in; Karswell responds by passing Holden a parchment with a runic inscription on it...when Holden finds it, it tries to fly into a fireplace, but gets caught on the grate and doesn't burn up. Holden starts having a lot of very discomfitting experiences, hollow drumbeats in hotel corridors, sounds like a creaky bicicyle, floating balls of luminous mist that follow him through a black forest...eventually he learns that that the paper Karswell slipped him will draw a fire demon right to him. His only hope is to pass the paper back to Karswell, but Karswell's on his guard...
Film is very much in the Val Lewton more-sizzle-than-steak mode, although we do see the fire-demon up close, and pretty early too...a lot of people hate those scenes, and the special effects could be better, but I think the demon itself is pretty well designed. The niftiest shot is one where we see the Moloch towering up over a train and raking this little guy to bits with his big hooked claws...the demon's a guy in a costume and the victim's a little puppet, but it still works fairly well in my opinion. Sue me. In between these few concessions to the audience's vulgarity, you get a lot of excellent dialogue, sharp characterization, clammy chilling black and white photography, and loads of expert atmospherics.
Besides, the silliest effect in the film is a stuffed inanimate cat which attacks Holden in a study (he pretends it's munching on him)...but I've never heard anyone complain about it.
As I said, get the longer version...among other things, it has a key scene with Karswell and his rather sweet mother, and a bit where Holden visits a farmhouse full of Karswell's devil-worshipping followers. Whoever cut those scenes was a complete idiot...even with them restored, the movie's quite brisk.
8.Black Sunday, 1960
This is the third time this movie has come up on this blog---it was already on the vampire list, and I devoted a whole entry to it and Black Sabbath a while ago. Actually, I do think I'll let you go back and take a look at those earlier entries, if you're really interested. But if you have to have the basics right here and now, the movie is directed by Mario Bava, one of the all-time great smoking pistols of horror cinema, and it was a real groundbreaker in terms of photography, atmosphere, heavy-duty gore, and real scares. It has spiked masks being pounded onto your face with mallets, baby scorpions coming up out of empty vampire eyesockets, and swinging lamps that lead you on and on into catacombs and then turn out to have no one holding them. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but...
9.The Pit And the Pendulum, 1961
Hey, two Barbara Steele movies in a row!
The Barbster, with her huge expressive eyes, was one of the standout things about Black Sunday, where she had a dual role as the witch/vampire Asa and her innocent descendant...Black Sunday was released in the US by American International, and Samuel Z. Arkoff et. al thought they'd put her to use in Pit And The Pendulum. Back in 1960, they'd had an unexpected smash hit with the Vincent Price/Roger Corman House of Usher,, and they greenlit another Poe adaptation with the same team. The result was the most frightening entry in their Poe series, although Masque of the Red Death is arguably the best. Richard Matheson's screenplay doesn't resemble Poe's story too much, although there is a pit and a pendulum at the climax...you couldn't get a whole movie out of Poe's original, so Matheson had to pad it out. Generally, that's a bad idea (have you seen any of those fucking Dr. Seuss things like Cat in the Hat?) but in this case, the extra material's the best stuff in the movie, especially Price's trip down into the catacombs...
I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Film is set in a version of sixteenth-century Spain in which the Inquisition, strangely, seems to have had nothing to with the Catholic Church. Englishman Francis Barnard, played by the godawful John Kerr, arrives at the Medina Castle to find out what's become of his sister Elizabeth, who married Don Nicholas Medina, played by Vincent Price ...I bet there weren't too many English-Spanish marriages about this period, but what do I know? Anyway, this union was as shortlived as it was improbable...Elizabeth is dead, either from a blood disease, or because she locked herself in an iron maiden (!). Barnard doesn't believe any of Don Medina's increasingly wacky stories, and decides to stick around and ferret out the truth, aided by the Don's dishy sister, Catherine (Luana Anders).
There are all kinds of apparently supernatural manifestations, and the Don, who's getting nuttier by the minute, thinks that Elizabeth is haunting the joint. We learn that he's come by his craziness quite honestly...his dad tortured poor Nicholas's mother and uncle to death right in front of him when Nicholas was a little tyke. Ultimately Nicholas decides to descend into the family crypt and see if Elizabeth is still in her coffin, and she is, but...it's little comfort to him, because she opens her blazing Barbara-Steele creepy peepers and climbs out and chases him back up several stories of rotting steps...
This sequence is tremendous, and it's why Pit makes it onto this list. The movie stays pretty good, although there's a major plot twist that I shouldn't reveal, and I won't. The climax isn't as cool as the scene with Barbara rising from the dead, but it's hard to go too wrong with a giant swinging blade that's just about to slice John Kerr in half....although I guess you might up with two really lousy performances rather than just one.
The sets were designed by the brilliant Daniel Haller, by the way. He could take a zilch American-International budget and stretch it out to infinity, and he and Corman made a great team. Just recently they had a whole bunch of Corman movies on the pay-per-view, and I watched 'em all. The best ones put Hammer's movies to shame, and even the cheesiest and cheapest, such as Bucket of Blood, delivered some stuff. I'm proud to say I grew up watching Corman's product; it made me many of the things I am today!
10.Black Sabbath, 1963
Okay, I haven't devoted as much time to this this Bava classic as I did to Black Sunday, so even though I wrote about it before, I'll do a proper write-up here. Just recently, Sabbath came up when I was writing the vampire list, because the third and scariest story, The Wurdalak, is just plain seminal bloodsucker stuff...didn't make the list because the rest of the movie, an anthology flick, wasn't all about vampires. It's Bava's second-best film, but that's still high praise...for one thing, it's in color, and Bava did a remarkable job on that, at a time when color was generally mis-used in horror movies. It was generally employed to add more punch to the gross-outs or other details, red vampire lips, Chris Lee's Dracula contact lenses, the lining of his cape, etc...sometimes it was tossed into single scenes in otherwise black and white movies, like the bit with the arm rising out of a bathtub full of blood in The Tingler, or the gore gouting out of a staked vampiress in Return of Dracula. The Hammer films were in 1950's style technicolor (I guess it was Technicolor), but everything was fully-lit and looked rather...nice. The problem with a lot of color photography is the lightning...everybody assumes that a color movie has to be in COLOR, with all the hues very distinct...but the only way you can achieve this is by lightning everything brightly, with a load of fill, which means that everything looks flat, like a postcard.
Now, it's really not too great to have a horror movie that looks like a postcard...and Bava obviously devoted a lot of serious thought to getting around the problem. Something similar seems to have been going on over at American International, in the Roger Corman Poe movies...the colors were all pretty distinct, but in rather bad taste, peculiarly combined, and it put you on edge. With Black Sabbath, Bava wanted to retain the sort of strong directional lightning he had on Black Sunday, and he succeeded in combining color and value in a way that you didn't see much of back then: it contributed mightily to the film's overall impact. It looks gory even when there's nothing gory going on.
As I said, movie's an anthology...there are three parts...the first is pretty scary, the second's a dud, and the third is very frightening indeed. Part one involves a woman who's hired to prepare the body of a rich old lady who's died with a ghastly expression on her face...apparently acquainted with the fact that dead people generally don't look real (ever been to a viewing?), Bava employs a hideous dummy-puppet thing as the old gal, and while she isn't convincing, it just really doesn't matter. The woman who's been brought in doesn't want to get near her, but the corpse has a ring she'd like to steal...she pinches it, and when she returns to her apartment, she's tormented by dripping sounds, and then a visit from the corpse...it's sorta like the best Night Gallery episode ever.
Part two involves a woman getting phone calls from an evil guy...it's a bore and a half. But Three is thirty minutes of the best horror cinema ever. If it went on for ninety minutes and stayed that good, it would be the all-time best vampire movie, and maybe the all-time scariest film, period. As it is, we just have to make do with Boris Karloff (still towards the top of his form, even though he was frail and crippled and about a billion years old) as the patriarch of a most unfortunate Russian family...he's gone out to kills this vampire bandit guy, there's a time limit, and he comes back after his use-by date with a great big hole in his chest. No one quite has the heart to do the needful with him...and so he just goes about killing everybody in the family, starting with a little kid, who comes back too, and goes after his mom...so it proceeds. Ah well. They've never been too happy in Russia, and I guess they had their reasons...