I’ve gone off horror films a bit recently because I’m getting fed up with watching people being tied to chairs and tortured, or young couples being terrorised by sociopathic home invaders, or wobblicam FFFF (Faux Found Footage Films) of people meeting horrible fates that you can’t see properly because they’re shot in such impressionistic flurries.
Then, last week, I found myself enjoying Insidious – and not just the first half, which everybody likes, but the second half, when most people think it goes off the rails. I enjoyed it because it’s a return to the sort of horror I love the most – ghosts, and demons, and ghoulish tableaux, and parallel spirit worlds – and because although director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell have borrowed, they have clearly borrowed from, say, Mario Bava, rather than Rob Zombie or Zack Snyder.
So I decided to make a list of films – and more specifically some of the scenes – that have always given me the creeps. This was easier said than done, as taking screengrabs from some of the films in question became impossible to do after dark, when it got too scary. (I’m looking at these pictures now, with the sun coming through the window, and wondering however I could have been such a wuss.) And then at some point the list got out of hand and took on a life of its own and ended up being 12 films instead of the five or six I’d originally envisaged, so I’ve had to split it into two.
This is by no means a list of all the scary films ever made; it’s just the ones that made a big impression on me. Everyone’s list will be different, but it’s clear mine tends towards the ghostly end of the spectrum rather than the shock-horror splattery end – with one big exception, which you’ll see in Part Two.
Needless to say, there are spoilers galore. You have been warned.
1) NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957)
How did I see it? On TV, at home, in the 1960s.
What’s the story? Jacques Tourneur’s superb occult chiller is based on the MR James short story Casting the Runes, very loosely but cleverly adapted for the screen by Charles Bennett (who began his career writing for Alfred Hitchcock) and Hal E Chester (who co-wrote the screenplay of Robert Hamer’s School for Scoundrels). Niall McGinnis plays Dr Julian Karswell, the oddly bearded but affable villain (and mother’s boy) who dresses up as a clown for children’s parties, keeps a guard-cat in the library of his Home Counties mansion, and puts a hex on Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews), a visiting psychologist determined to discredit Karswell’s devil-worshipping cult. The American’s initial scepticism is gradually eroded by a sense of mounting terror and horrible squeaky noises in the corridor of the Savoy.
The demon later featured on the cover of the Roky Erickson and the Aliens album I Think of Demons; Kate Bush sampled the line, “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” for Hounds of Love; and Dana Andrews “said prunes gave him the runes, and passing them used lots of skills” in Science Fiction Double Feature, the opening number in The Rocky Horror Show (I prefer the title of the original stage show, by the way, because I don’t like the film much.)
|Roky Erickson & the Aliens: I Think of Demons cover art|
Why was I so scared? Are you kidding? The woods at night! This is primal scream territory (cf The Blair Witch Project). And the pure terror of being chased by something you can sense, and maybe hear, but can’t see. Add the power of suggestion – Karswell saying to Holden as he sets off from the house, “Oh, if you’re thinking of going through the woods, you might find it unpleasant” and you’ve got a classic scary sequence. All Tourneur has to do is have Andrews walk through the trees at night, throw in a bus* in the form of an unexpected branch and then add the demon’s signature sound – a sort of squeaky wheel noise – and some thudding footprints (which reminded me of an episode of the mildly terrifying mid-60s cartoon series Jonny Quest) of a giant entity that remains unseen, apart from the odd bit of stray fireball.
Though the demon itself doesn’t appear in this particular scene, purists insist the film was ruined by the studio’s insistence on including explicit shots of it elsewhere. But it was the demon that made me want to watch Night of the Demon in the first place after I saw it in a trailer on TV. And once the monster had appeared right at the start, I spent the entire film in a state of terror that it would appear again.
* A “bus” or “Lewton bus” (named after producer Val Lewton) is the sort of fake scare (for example, when someone opens a cupboard door and a cat suddenly jumps out) that has since become a cliché in horror films. The name comes from the shock moment when a bus suddenly and noisily pulls up in front of an already nervous heroine in Tourneur’s Cat People (1942).
2) THE INNOCENTS (1961)
How did I see it? On TV, at home, in the 1960s
What’s the story? Jack Clayton’s spooky film of Henry James’ classic chiller The Turn of the Screw (with a screenplay by John Mortimer, William Archibald and Truman Capote) stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, a highly-strung governess (typical repressed spinster, in other words) who begins to suspect her young charges are possessed by the spirits of the dead servants she sees peering through the window or lurking on the far side of the lake in an uncanny impression of a Black Sabbath album cover. Are the ghosts real, or figments of her neurotic imagination? Kerr’s febrile performance leaves it up to you to decide whether it’s the spectres or the governess herself who’s the more frightening, but either way Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are two of the creepiest child actors in the history of cinema.
Why was I so scared? During a game of hide-and-seek with the children, Miss Giddens hides behind the curtains and sees Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde, who’s pretty scary at the best of times) peering in through the window. Windows! Which seem to offer a solid surface for you to put your back against, but which are not solid at all – not only can you see through them, but something on the other side can look back at you. Also, they provide lots of worrying dark space (especially in the widescreen format) and odd reflections.
This scene has left me with a lifelong distrust of windows, curtains and, especially, hide-and-seek (see also the Christmas Party ghost story in Dead of Night (1945)). I particularly worry about seeing someone peering in through my window when I’m on the second or third floor. With no balcony.
3) THE HAUNTING (1963)
How did I see it?On TV, at home, during the 1960s. But then – more memorably – on TV, at home, during the early 1990s.
What’s the story? Forget Jan de Bont’s crashingly dull remake. This first adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House proves that, where ghost stories are concerned, you’re more likely to get goose pimples from spooky sound effects and camera angles than from a truckload of computer-generated apparitions. Neurotic Julie Harris and chic lesbian Claire Bloom are among four researchers bunking down in a big old mansion with a troubled history to investigate rumours that it’s haunted. My favourite bit is when the lights go out and Harris holds Bloom’s hand for comfort… Like Night of the Demon‘s Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise did his directing apprenticeship under the aegis of legendary horror movie producer Val Lewton, and it shows in his less-is-more approach in conjuring up an atmosphere of overripe evil.
Why was I so scared? I first watched this in the 1960s without lasting damage, so by the time I decided to take another look at it in the early 1990s, I’d seen hundreds of really horrible and scary horror films, had read Jackson’s novel a couple of times, couldn’t recall anything memorably frightening in it and was feeling blasé. Big Mistake. It was after midnight, I was on my own, and I had completely underestimated the cumulative effect of spooky noises, shadowy close-ups and unexplained hammerings at doors. By the time the film ended I was a gibbering wreck and had to watch several episodes of Blackadder before I felt able to go to bed.
This illustrates a universal truth, by the way, and may go some way towards explaining why a lot of serious film critics continually sneer at or make patronising comments about horror movies. Of course they do – they watch them at 10 o’clock in the morning in a packed screening-room full of other critics. There should be a legal clause in every new horror movie’s press pack demanding that individual critics have to watch the film on their own, after dark. That would sort them out.
4) I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA (BLACK SABBATH) (1963)
How did I see it?At the Croydon ABC, in 1970, with a boyfriend. Afterwards, I pretended it hadn’t scared me at all. I took another look at it in the 1990s and it scared me all over again. It still scares me. It scared me when I took this screengrab from it.
What’s the story? Black Sabbath (aka I tre volti della paura or The Three Faces of Fear) is a portmanteau film comprising three stories directed by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. Weakest segment is the giallo-esque thriller The Telephone, but The Wurdalak (adapted from a story by Aleksei Tolstoy and starring Boris Karloff as a vampire) and The Drop of Water (about a nurse who ill-advisedly steals from a corpse) both contain heart-stopping moments that are guaranteed to haunt your nightmares.
Why was I so scared? The idea of something horrible coming closer and closer is always a frightening one, even more so when you can’t actually see how it’s moving. The ghost of the old lady in The Drop of Water (see illustration above) may be wearing generic spooky-old-lady make-up, but she freaks me out. I don’t like the way she glides, and stretches her arms out, as if she has some sort of claim on me… I suspect James Wan and Leigh Whannell have seen Black Sabbath, because their old lady ghost in Dead Silence reminds me of this one. Also, Bava has a way with shadows and colour filters that just gives you the creeps. The colour scheme, all those greens and purples, is just… unhealthy. Like something putrefying.
For ages I thought The Drop of Water was from a story by Anton Chekhov (in fact it’s by Ivan Chekhov) and wondered why I couldn’t find it, even though I scoured his short story collections. (So hey, a Mario Bava movie made me read lots of Chekhov short stories, which can’t be bad.) I think this was quite an understandable error, as the old lady ghost also reminds me of Edith Evans in Thorold Dickinson’s The Queen of Spades, adapted from a short story by another Russian, Alexander Pushkin. Italian + Russian = a killer horror movie combination.
There’s something scary about old ladies at the best of times, and the scariest thing is that I’m in the process of turning into one. I think I shall have to return to this subject at a later date.
5) NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
How did I see it?A heavily censored version (the scenes of ghouls eating Tom and Judy’s roasted entrails were missing, as was the scene in which Helen Cooper is hacked to death with a trowel by her zombie daughter) with a boyfriend, in 1973 at the Gate Bloomsbury. Followed by an uncut version, with another boyfriend, in 1974, at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road.
What’s the story? Over 30 years, two sequels, one colour remake and hundreds of pale imitations later, the no-budget zombie flick that changed the face of the horror genre has lost none of its bite. George A Romero shattered all the conventions with his grim story of seven people holed up in an isolated farmhouse, where their petty bickering threatens to tear them apart just as surely as the flesh-eating walking corpses who have got them surrounded. Meanwhile, the vigilante militia who are closing in are almost as frightening as the zombies they’re using as target practice.
Night of the Living Dead never went on general release in the UK, and so had to be tracked down to its intermittent screenings in odd places and arthouse cinemas, but strong word of mouth ensured it was the horror movie to watch. I knew in advance where the story was going because I’d read the synopsis in Monthly Film Bulletin, which is why I’d heard of it in the first place. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for its sheer unrelenting bleakness: no light relief, no ray of light, no way out. Also, though I’d seen Plague of the Zombies and I Walked with a Zombie, I had never seen zombies like these before; in fact, until the Italian zombie craze started up after Dawn of the Dead, we didn’t even call them zombies – just ghouls or the living dead. Dawn of the Dead and Romero’s later living dead movies are fun, but I still find Night of the Living Dead almost unbearably grim, very hard to watch, and genuinely upsetting.
When I went to bed after seeing it for the first time, I dreamt the first zombie, the one from the graveyard, was standing over my bed, just standing there and looking down at me. This is one of the most frightening dreams I can remember ever having, and I hope I never have it again.
6) TOBY DAMMIT (1968)
How did I see it?Late night at the Screen on the Green, 1975. On my own.
What’s the story? Histoire Extraordinaires (aka Spirits of the Dead aka Tales of Mystery and Imagination) (1968) is another portmanteau film, this time consisting of three adaptations of stories by Edgar Allan Poe, each directed by an arty European auteur. Roger Vadim’s Metzengerstein (Jane and and Peter Fonda, plus horse) and Louis Malle’s William Wilson are more kitsch than scary (though William Wilson does feature a memorable scene in which Brigitte Bardot, in a black wig, gets whipped), but it’s the third and final segment, Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit, which is the zinger here. Terence Stamp plays a burnt-out film star who arrives in Rome to film a “Catholic Western” and finds himself up to his eyeballs in typically Fellini-esque nuttiness – nuns, paparazzi, TV presenters, fashion models. But it’s the final pay-off, which involves a ghostly little girl, that will give you the willies. If I tell you the title of the Poe story on which it was based is Never Bet the Devil Your Head, it will give you a clue as to what happens after Toby gets his 1964 Ferrari 330 LMB (thank you Internet Movie Cars Database) and puts pedal to the metal.
Why was I so scared? Toby keeps seeing a scary little girl ghost, an image not featured in the Poe story (in which the “Devil” of the title is an old man) but which was almost certainly “inspired” by the little girl ghost in Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (aka Kill Baby, Kill) (1966) – same long blonde hair, same white frock and ball. I suspect that if I’d seen Operazione Paura at the Screen on the Green that night, instead of Histoires Extraordinaires, it would be Bava’s film and not Fellini’s on this list you are now reading. But Stamp’s performance is scary too – drunk, dishevelled and dissolute, he looks like Edgar Allan Poe’s even more decadent id, and his nocturnal drive through the outskirts of Rome is so desperate and terrifying you just know it will end badly.
|The little girl ghost in Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura.|
After I saw this film I had to walk home from Islington to Tufnell Park, through streets that were just as deserted as the ones in the film (albeit in north London rather than just outside Rome), at two o’clock in the morning. Deserted streets after dark are scary, because they might turn out to be not deserted at all. All the way back I kept expecting to see the little girl ghost. Or her ball. Or worse. And then, when I finally got home, I expected her to be waiting for me when I opened the door.
|Terence Stamp looking quite Poe-ish as Toby Dammit.|