This is the second part of my list of films – and more specifically some of the scenes – that have always given me the creeps. (Here’s a link to the first part, for those who haven’t read it.) At some point the list got out of hand and expanded into 12 films instead of the five or six I’d originally envisaged. And then even that extended list got out of hand as I kept thinking of films I’d left out. I’ve mentioned some of these in an appendix of Honourable Mentions. I might add to it at some point.
I would like to repeat – 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. And it’s no good berating me because I’ve included or excluded such-and-such a title – there can be few experiences more subjective than being scared, and I’m sorry, but The Exorcistdidn’t do it for me. But if you have any titles to add, I’d love to hear about them; that’s what the comments are for.
7) WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU (1968)
How did I see it? On TV, not on its first broadcast, but when it was repeated in the early 1970s, while I was still living with my parents. Then in the 1980s, on video, at David Pirie’s house. Then in the 1990s, on DVD. On my own. Big mistake.
What’s the story? MR James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” was first published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904, and has been filmed twice for television; I haven’t seen the more recent adaptation. As Helen Conrad O’Briain writes in Laudian Eccleisa and Victorian culture wars in the ghost stories of MR James*, “The story is set in motion by one of James’ most common narrative devices: the unwarranted, unthinking removal of a hidden object. It is set in the days leading to the winter solstice when the powers of evil are at their height, but also, as the local curate reminds his congregation, the feast of St Tomas the Doubter.” Jonathan Miller’s adaptation, “a parable on intellectual arrogance”, was screened under the banner of the BBC’s arts series Omnibus. Michael Hordern plays a muttering, socially inept Cambridge professor who discovers, on the site of an ancient Templars’s church, a bronze whistle inscribed with the words, “QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT”, which he translates as “Who is this who is coming?” And of course he blows it.
Why was I so scared? “I gather that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen.” When I first saw Miller’s film, I still lived with my parents, and my bedroom had a spare bed in it. I still regard spare beds with distrust.
But what frightens me even more than the crumpled linen ghost at the climax is Professor Parkin’s fractured nightmare as he slips in and out of sleep, dreaming – in fits and starts, with equally fitful and alarming sound effects – that he is being chased along the otherwise deserted beach by “a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined.” Miller captures perfectly the half-waking, half-dreaming state of disturbed and disturbing sleep. And ever since first seeing it, I have been afraid that I too might one day dream this same dream.
I’m not sure I’d ever want to be entirely alone on one of those big deserted beaches on the Norfolk coast, either.
* A chapter in The Ghost Story From the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (Four Courts Press, 2010) edited by Helen Conrad O’Briain and Julie Anne Stevens.
8) SCANNERS (1981)
How did I see it? On its first release, at the Empire cinema in Leicester Square, with a boyfriend.
What’s the story? Exploding heads are two-a-penny in the movies nowadays, but David Cronenberg did it first in this futuristic tale about the unexpected side-effects of a pregnancy drug. Patrick McGoohan plays the mad scientist whose experiments have resulted in a race of mutant telepaths, one of whom (Michael Ironside) is going around blowing up heads and forcing cops to turn their guns on each other. Stephen Lack and Jennifer O’Neill are the “good” scanners who try to settle his hash with their own super mental powers. Compared to many of Cronenberg’s films it’s all good clean upbeat fun (despite – or maybe even because of – an ending in which the hero’s eyeballs explode before he goes up in flames) but it’s also packed with the same eerie prescience as the rest of the film-maker’s early work.
Why was I so scared? The inclusion of the exploding head in this list is really a nod to all the early oeuvre of David Cronenberg, who throughout the 1970s and 1980s held me in his thrall with his icky yet fascinating visions of body horror, made even more compelling by their intellectual underpinnings. There are few directors who I feel are capable of showing me something so unpleasant that I could never in my wildest dreams imagine it; David Lynch has done it several times, Martin Scorsese has managed it once or twice, but David Cronenberg used to do it regularly, from the gung-ho sexual parasites of Shivers via the extreme mind fuckery of Videodrome, all the way through to the gloomy Greek tragedy of Dead Ringers, I would sit through his films in a state of extreme terror, fearful of what he might serve up.
I need you to try and think yourself back into my shoes in 1981. You don’t read trade papers, and Empire magazine doesn’t exist: the only thing you know about Scanners is the poster that has gone up in the underground with the words, “10 seconds: The pain begins. 15 seconds: You can’t breathe. 20 seconds: You explode.” You’re a bit scared of this poster, but you’ve seen Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1998), so you’re not entirely unfamiliar with the idea of exploding people. What you are not expecting is an exploding head, still less for it to occur only about 12 minutes into the film, almost before you’ve even got comfortable in your seat. It’s a huge suprise, and you spend most of the rest of the film in a state of whimpering shock, worried that someone else’s head is going to blow up. By the time it gets to the final scanning duel between good scanner Cameron Vale and evil scanner Darryl Revok (I’m gonna suck your brain dry!”), you’re almost disappointed that all it entails is bulging veins, squirty haemorrhage, monstrously misshapen heads and spontaneous combustion (which incidentally looks even better now than it did at the time – it just wouldn’t be the same in CGI). No exploding heads. But a cinematic frontier has just been passed.
9) THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)
How did I see it? On TV, its first broadcast, 24th December 1989. I was scared to go to bed afterwards – and I wasn’t even on my own.
What’s the story? A new adaptation of Susan Hill’s spooky novel The Woman in Black, already successfully adapted for the stage, has been filmed by James Watkins with Daniel Radcliffe in the leading role, but it’s not as terrifying as this 1989 Granada adaptation, with a teleplay by Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame. Whenever we veterans of the original TV screening discuss it among ourselves, we all talk about “that scene” and exchange nervous looks. If you thought you couldn’t possibly be frightened by such hoary old ghost story clichés as old dark houses, foggy marshes and black-clad figures looking vaguely malevolent in graveyards – think again. The ending is fudged – but maybe that’s just as well; if it had been as terrifying as the rest of the film, I would probably still be gibbering.
Why was I so scared? Misled by prior familiarity with movies about haunted houses, I somehow fell into the trap of thinking the woman in black was haunting Eel Marsh House, where young solicitor Arthur Kipps is assigned to sort out the papers of its late owner, Mrs Drablow. So, after a few unpleasant and frankly nerve-racking incidents in the house and on the fogbound causeway outside, I assumed Kipps would be safe once he got back to sleep in the Gifford Arms in “the little market town” of Crythin Gifford. But he comes down with some sort of fever, wakes in the middle of the night and sees the woman in black bearing down on him, letting out the most terrible shriek.
Interestingly, this particular scene appears to be an elaboration of Kneale and his director, Herbert Wise; the only hint of it in Hill’s novel is, “The woman in black seemed to haunt me, even here, to sit on the end of my bed, to push her face suddenly down close to mine as I lay asleep, so I awoke crying in terror.” In the film, it’s the sort of shock effect we expect to be cut away from, but it goes on and on for what seems a horrible eternity, with that awful shrieking, and her ghastly face getting closer and closer… It’s not just the ghostly make-up, and it’s not just a case – as in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath – of a scary old woman; kudos to Pauline Moran for expressing so perfectly what Hill describes as, “the purest evil and hatred and loathing”.
The scene was a big influence on my novel The Ex, a ghost story I self-published in 2008, and which was bought and read by four people. My heartfelt thanks to those intrepid four.
10) RINGU (1998)
How did I see it? At a packed press screening in the tiny cinema at Soho House. My heart sank when I saw we were expected to watch a just-arrived-by-Fedex crappy video copy. But, of course, the crappy video quality turned out to be entirely appropriate for the film.
What’s the story? The Hollywood remake has its moments, but for chills that reach all the way down to your bone-marrow there’s no substitute for the original Japanese horror movie, directed by Hideo Nakata, about a cursed videotape that condemns anyone who watches it to a horrible death seven days later. The feisty reporter heroine can’t resist taking a peek, but only really starts to worry when she catches her small son watching too. And so the countdown begins. Can she and her ex-husband trace the source of the recording and lift the curse in time?
Why was I so scared? Like The Woman in Black, this is a story that tricks you into thinking the worst is over. The heroine, Reiko, has already undergone a nail-biting ordeal at the bottom of a well, where it seems she finally laid the vengeful ghost of Sadako – the entity at the root of all the trouble – to rest. So when her ex-husband Ryuchi sees the haunted video playing, of its own accord, on his TV screen, we’re perturbed, but only mildly. We’ve watched this haunted video before, and hey, it’s kind of creepy, but not that scary.
Except that this time, the jerky figure of Sadako comes nearer and nearer to the camera until – horror of horrors – she’s actually crawling out of Ryuchi‘s TV set. At this point, and for perhaps the first time in my life, I could literally feel that old cliché – the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Because we thought it was all over (it is now). Because, if Sadako can crawl out of Ryuchi’s TV set into his living-room, what’s to stop her breaching the fourth wall, and crawling out of the screen and into the cinema? And what’s to stop us dying of fright, like Ryuchi?
11) KAIRO (2001)
How did I see it? At the MK2 Beaubourg, on my own. I was fortunate to be living in Paris when Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film came out; he’s a favourite of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, so it got a gratifyingly rapid release in France, just three months after the Japanese premiere. My less fortunate colleagues on the other side of La Manche, however, had to wait five years before they could see it in the UK – and then only because Pulse, the appalling American remake, was in the offing – by which time many of them had had their fill of Japanese ghosts with long black hair and shuffling steps.
What’s the story? “Do you want to meet a ghost?” Asian film-makers, unlike most of their Hollywood counterparts, understand that a sense of mounting dread is many times more potent than a flurry of cheap shocks, loud music and frantic editing. While Ringu was predicated on new technology (albeit, in the case of video, technology that even then was in the process of being superceded) Kurosawa reinterprets the ghost story for the computer age in a story about suicides on a university campus, with results that will have you eyeing your laptop suspiciously. There’s an apocalyptic thread running through the narrative, as well as a plausible metaphor for alienation in the modern world, but there are also some classic ghostly manifestations that you won’t forget in a hurry.
Why was I so scared? It’s hard to get a handle on Kairo, which is probably the point; characters keep fading away, leaving nothing but the shadows of their outlines on the wall, like victims of the Hiroshima blast. Disused rooms are sealed off with literal red tape; you enter them at your peril. People commit suicide for no apparent reason; faces are blurred in reflections, and everyone’s movements seem slightly out of synch, like images viewed via webcams and a Lynch-like soundtrack of ominous rumblings and ghostly singing. There’s a lot more to Kairo than the aforementioned ghosts with long black hair and shuffling steps, but for me, the scariest scene is when one of the characters sees a woman in black walking down the room towards him with an oddly purposeful gait, made even more disconcerting by the way she stumbles – and recovers – in mid-stride. And then, as she comes up to him, you share his point of view as he takes refuge behind the sofa and see, with him, that her feet are no longer visible. Aha, you think, she’s gone. But no…
12) THE DESCENT (2005)
How did I see it? At home, on DVD, on my own.
What’s the story? Six women go spelunking in the Appalachians and get lost. Within minutes of the beginning of Neil Marshall’s follow-up to Dog Soldiers, the writer-director has already killed off characters, wrecked lives and established ground rules for the coming ordeal: damaged psyches, no mercy and just enough psychological depth to underpin oodles of gruelling action and gore. The result is the strongest horror movie in years – even before the gutsy cast of unknown actresses meets a tribe of man-eating troglodytes.
Why was I so scared? Dog Soldiers was entertaining, but derivative and more funny than scary. So I started watching Marshall’s follow-up without expectations. The opening car accident, filmed in a way I’d never seen a car accident filmed before, was a jolt, but even so I wasn’t prepared for the scene later on in which Sarah gets stuck in a narrow tunnel. I never realised I had claustrophobia, but at this point I started hyperventilating, and had to put the DVD on pause and go off to make a cup of tea to calm myself down. Thank heaven I was watching at home and not in the cinema. I don’t think I’ve ever hyperventilated at a film before; it was an alarming experience, and this is why The Descent makes it on to this list.
The Uninvited (1944) A great little haunted house mystery, adapted by Frank Partos and Dodie Smith from the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle. Maybe not a classic, but great characters, ingenious Rebecca-style plot, a lovely song (“Stella by Starlight”) and some genuinely scary moments, including the ghost at the top of the stairs.
Dead of Night (1945) The dummy, the hearse, the architect’s dream. But especially, when I first saw it, the story with the mirror, which has made me wary of mirrors ever since, and which I still find both more frightening and more interesting (so you’re telling me Googie Withers actually went ahead and married that guy?) than anything in the recent fad for “mirror scares”.
Phantasm (1979) Strange to reflect on this now, but for several months after seeing Don Coscarelli’s film I was worried about having my brain drilled by a flying ball. (I should add, in my defence, that I was living in Tokyo at the time, and we all know the Japanese are good at inventing high-tech gizmos. So it could have happened.)
Ghostwatch (1992) The great postmodern TV ghost story, written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning, was first broadcast on Halloween 1992 and caused a rumpus by fooling a lot of people into thinking it was a reality TV inquiry into a haunted house rather than cleverly constructed fiction with the TV presenters Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene and Craig Charles playing themselves. Being older and more jaded, I didn’t fall for it, which is not to say it didn’t scare me with its cunningly planted shocks, especially a fleeting glimpse of the ghost – “Pipes” – as the TV camera pans across the children’s bedroom.
The Grudge (2004) For once, I prefer the American remake to the original Japanese film, though both have equally baffling narratives – something which doesn’t stop them being spooky as hell. Sometimes, to scare visitors to my seven-storey apartment block in Paris, I used to race down the stairs while they were still waiting for the lift and stand right next up to it as they passed. Just like the little boy ghost in this. The sequence with Susan in the empty office block (and then, when the ghost follows her home) contains at least six moments that made my skin crawl: the CCTV camera-view of the corridor, the phone call, the stairs, the lift, the spy-hole and, oh God, the bedclothes.